Amy Hunter

The President, the Promise and the Alliance

Filed By Amy Hunter | May 06, 2010 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Day of Silence, Gay-Straight Alliance, Kalamazoo Non-Discrimination Ordinance, Race to the Top, The Laramie Project

This June in Kalamazoo, Michigan, President Obama will deliver the commencement address to Kalamazoo Central High School's class of 2010. KCHS was one of three finalists in the first "Race to the Top" competition and the President's final choice. With Kalamazoo's mayor Bobby Hopewell in attendance, K' Central's principal, Von Washington Jr. received the news at 11:00 Tuesday morning from Obama's Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan.

KCHS is deserving of the honor. Over 80% of the senior class graduates each year. This may be due in part to the "Kalamazoo Promise." The "Promise" guarantees tuition at any public state college or university to KCHS graduates. Funded anonymously, this program is proving very successful in attracting families to the district and keeping students engaged throughout their K-12 education. KCHS is racially diverse; the student body is 51% African-American, 39% Caucasian, 7% Hispanic, 2% Asian-American, and 1% Native American. Many of these students, in particular, minorities, who would not otherwise have the means to continue on to higher education, will be able to take advantage of "Promise" money to fund college.

K' Central offers a first-rate, well-rounded experience to its students. The Maroon Giants captured the state class "A" boy's basketball championship this past March and the forensics team routinely places well in competition. A new performing arts complex offers students opportunities to produce arts events utilizing technically advanced facilities. The Kalamazoo school system operates a number of magnet schools giving students a variety of educational experiences, tailored to their specific interests. In short, K' Central is a terrific place for students to mature in a diverse, and supportive environment.

This is all standard boilerplate stuff and on its own, is great. There is however, a different take on why KCHS deserves this honor.

Other than racial diversity, administration, staff and students actively support sexual orientation and gender identity diversity. Kalamazoo Central has one of only a handful of Gay-Straight Alliances in Kalamazoo County. Not only are GSA's rare in this part of Michigan, but, increasingly they encounter downward pressure from school boards and administrators. One area district has gone so far as to suspend students for participating in the "National Day of Silence". Kalamazoo Public Schools and KCHS not only stand against this trend, the GSA at K' Central is vital and growing.

Kalamazoo Central's principal wasn't the only person at KCHS to get a good news phone call Tuesday; Patricia Carlin, staff advisor for KC's GSA was informed that the Kalamazoo Community Foundation Equality Fund awarded them a grant specifically for Gay-Straight Alliance support. In an e-mail to Equality Fund board members, Ms. Carlin expressed her excitement about the grant: "Thanks so very much for this great news. I am very excited and the students will be as well. We had a great Day of Silence and this will be the icing on the cake for them."

(Also, today we find out if the president is going to speak at graduation, can you even imagine?)

In February 2008, KCHS stirred national attention when members of the gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to protest and disrupt a student production of "The Laramie Project". Despite the highly publicized controversy, students, parents, and administrators, refused to back-down. The performances went on as scheduled, and were sold-out. Residents of Kalamazoo banded together with LGBT groups and allies to stage a counter protest to the hate church. Westboro, despite their fierce rhetoric, failed to show.

Far too often, our public schools cannot encourage diversity and fairness. Narrow-minded, fear-mongering candidates bully their way onto school boards and push personal agendas. The long-term consequences on young citizens of the stifling policies enacted by these people are frightening. Rather than encouraging intellectual curiosity and critical thought, students are taught to seek simplistic, black and white points of view. There is a well-understood, direct correlation between critical thought and valuing diversity.

Kalamazoo Public Schools, by providing a multi-faceted educational environment that will produce thoughtful graduates, makes it a good model for our nation. Test scores, incremental yearly improvement of overall academic achievement certainly have a place in what we think of as a "good" school. Nevertheless, well-rounded graduates who think critically, posses positive self-images, and value diversity and equality provide the best measure of success for our schools.

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If any school deserves the honor of President Obama speaking there, it's this one.

Aristotle would be proud to support this school. I pray that our President makes this a truly historic occasion.

All this is good and well, except as is often the case with progressives, you fail to present a nuanced view and think of the big picture. The reality is that the "Race to the Top" program is a part of the school privatization program of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama. What is needed are thoughtful analysts who can see shades of gray. A good post on this topic would have noted areas of positive developments at the school (such as their diversity and queer-friendly environment), while also noting the pluses and minuses of the Race to the Top program. It is because of thoughtless cheerleading (often well-intentioned) that we are not making progress on our wider agenda. As a GLBT person, I care about the whole spectrum of issues facing our society and will continue to speak out on them, not just through the narrowness of cheering or booing based on whether something seems "good" or "bad" for the gays.

Amy Hunter Amy Hunter | May 6, 2010 2:00 PM

Matt--your point is well taken, however this piece was not intended to be an analysis of the Race to the Top program. It was about a school that values diversity as well as test scores. The environment in S.W. Michigan, in fact statewide, is pretty hostile to diversity--be it racial or, sexual/gender. Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Central represent bright spots in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Hi Amy-

Thank you for the response and for clarifying the purpose of your piece. I appreciate that your focus was on the school's achievements in creating a safe and diverse environment. Indeed, that is a great topic to share with the community and certainly praise-worthy. All I'm suggesting is that in the process of cheering on these young heroes and their community, let's be sure to at least show some ambivalence towards Arne Duncan and the award they received. Ultimately, "Race to the Top" is harming public education in diverse communities across the country. My only point is that when you mention it, please at least indicate the debate about its effect before moving on to the noteworthy aspects of life at the school. The last thing Arne Duncan deserves is positive PR in a community like ours that ought to be holding him accountable.

Amy Hunter Amy Hunter | May 7, 2010 6:29 AM

Hi Matt,
This is a great response. Why? Because, while I have some knowledge about the Race to the Top program, it certainly isn't comprehensive. You suggest, rightly, that my job as a TBP contributor is to offer an enlarged understanding of the topics I post about. Furthermore, the public schools that applied for the program did so primarily due to the dollar signs involved. My bet is that very few in the Kalamazoo area have any clue what "Race to the Top" entails.
Here's what I would like to do: I will put my research hat on and in the coming weeks, I will post a piece primarily about "Race to the Top". If you would, look for it and hopefully amplify it with your comments.