One phrase essentially set off a powder keg of discussion at last Tuesday’s Baltimore City school board meeting.
Board member George Van Hook Jr. used the word “neo slavery” in describing the process of closing schools in the city. School CEO Andrés Alonso immediately expressed opposition to the phrase and launched into a speech about the school system’s history of failing to properly educate its students.
A day after the meeting, Van Hook clarified what he meant by using the phrase.
“I am not saying that the Baltimore school system or the school board is promoting slavery,” he said. “What I was referring to was the de facto denial of the opportunity for people to participate fully in the people’s ability to determine the destiny and the outcome and the teaching model for their children. I look at this as being a type of control or self determination. It is subjugating and oppressing people by denying their right to self determination.”
Van Hook said he took issue with the communication process associated with a plan to close a number of low-performing schools. Parents were “confused, stymied, and flustered” by the communication process involved in the recent school closings, according to Van Hook.
“[The process] was something that was hurtful and insulting to a community that thought that they would have more of a voice in the outcome,” Van Hook said. “We did nothing illegal. It is the right of the school board or the school system. [But] I believe we did not go as far as we should have gone in defending broad-based education.”
The board voted unanimously to close the following schools at the end of the academic year: Diggs-Johnson, West Baltimore and Winston middle schools and Doris Johnson High. It also voted to shut Chinquapin Middle, with Hook casting the only vote against its closure. At the same meeting, the board also unanimously approved an arts theme for Booker T. Washington Middle. And the board voted to revoke the charter status of Dr. Rayner Browne Academy, which became the first school in the city not to be issued a charter contract renewal.
“My comments again were really intended to talk about the visceral reaction to a process that really limited or blocked the full participation of a community that wanted to be engaged and had a right to be part of the decision making process,” Van Hook said.
“When I believe that people are hurt and they have been oppressed I speak out about it. That is my responsibility as a school leader,” Van Hook said. “Hopefully we will become better. Next time I hope we will sit at the table early and work with the stakeholders.”
Alonso declined to comment about the term “neo slavery” when I spoke with him Thursday. He referred me back to his transcribed comments from the meeting.
During the meeting, Alonso said he was very disturbed by the phrase "neo slavery."
Alonso added: “Neo slavery is for decades having a school system where half the kids don’t graduate from high school. Neo-slavery is having schools that year after year, after year fail kids; where 70-80% of kids are at basic in state tests that they are condemned for life in some way.
"Neo slavery is walking in a school system two years ago, as I did, and find that less than 20% of the eighth-graders are proficient and above in the MSA. So the recommendation is about what I believe is going to get kids moving as fast as possible.
"And if it takes to be CEO of this school system to get agreement then I am the wrong CEO for this school system. Because (I am willing to entertain it)…because the reality is that the only thing that matters… the only thing that matters is outcomes for kids. And my recommendation is based on finding the best option I believe for the school. Now, if the community truly means what it is saying about what is best for kids in the school, then it is going to do whatever it needs to do to make whatever option that emerges from today’s conversation successful. Because quite frankly, it hasn’t been successful in the past or we would not be at a point where… nobody wants to close a school because it is the hardest thing to do. It is so much easier to just coast, so much easier to coast rather than to have these conversations.
"But 'neo slavery' is what we’ve had here for a long time. What we are proposing….what we are proposing is a school that I believe is the quickest way to get us to where we need to go with our kids. And, it is the responsibility of the community to embrace no matter whatever the decision is, and that’s the recommendation.
"And what I need from the Board, and I have requested this guidance several times, is that if the Board is telling me that next year before I go to the Board with a recommendation that everybody has to be happy then you know we will figure out a way to make it work. But if, what we want from this school system is to move as quickly as possible to move student outcomes, then it cannot be simply a democratic process, there is going to have to be decisions where people are not going to be happy and recommendations will have to be made. … Ultimately, it is the Board’s decision.
"But I think that what we need is to be as respectful of ourselves in the process as we are asking us to be of community. The use of that term is highly objectionable to me. There is a difference in that term and simply making a decision on the basis of what one thinks is good for a group of kids, and then holding the direction and responding to the criticism from the community.
"The movement towards keeping the seventh-graders in the school was a difficult decision, and it was all about listening to the community’s concern about if this was a good school then why wouldn’t it be open to the kids that were already there. So I don’t want to engage in a debate but I have to respond to that term… it is not a term that is acceptable to me.”
What do you think about Van Hook's use of the phrase "neo slavery"? And what do you think about Alonso's response at the meeting?