Who deserves a Bicentennial Medal more than some of the folks that the College has honored in the past few years? Nancy Gannon ’89, principal The School for Democracy and Leadership in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. SDL was started in the shell of one of the worst public schools in the country. Nancy started with almost nothing and built a public school where few thought it could be done. Indeed, some think that the experiment should have failed. Want to learn about life and teaching? Go spend a year with Nancy. (Or, if you are doing Williams@NYC, go intern with her.)

The Nancy of today most reminds me of the Nancy 20 years ago because she takes no guff from anyone. See below.

When activism masquerades as education


Daily News Op-Ed

City Journal

July 21, 2006

New York City’s ideal of public schooling as a means of assimilating all children into a common civic culture is under assault – not by teachers who care too little, but by those who, in a perverse way, care too much.

The root of the problem is “social justice” education. It starts in teacher preparation programs, where rigorous training in math, science and literacy takes a backseat to theories about victimization and inequality. Teachers-to-be are told that conventional instruction is an outgrowth of capitalist oppression; “true” education helps students see the unfairness all around them and challenge society to change.

But it doesn’t stop there. Far too many New York City public schools – including some of the new small schools created by Chancellor Joel Klein and funded with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – distort education by imbuing social justice into everything they do.

Here’s a brief dishonor roll:

El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, led by Principal Héctor Calderón. After being chosen for the job, Calderón told an interviewer that he is a dedicated follower of Marxist Paolo Freire, author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” (A sample from the book: “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.”) His school, Calderón says, now fully incorporates the idea of “education for liberation.”

The School for Democracy and Leadership in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, led by Principal Nancy Gannon. “We are incredibly steeped in activism,” Gannon says. “We encourage the students to pick something in the world or the community they want to change and then act on it together.” Students have put out a brochure saying that they are “committed to fighting against the injustice and inequality within our education system.” They call for “mandatory African-American history classes in all New York City public schools.”

Leadership Institute in the Bronx, led by Principal Ron Gonzalez. This school is the brainchild of the radical Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and its youth branch, Sistas and Brothas United. When I visited recently, it was already clear that the idea of democratic empowerment for the students was subverting any hope for a rigorous education. Kids wore ghetto garb, chewed gum, and drank soda in class.

Outside school, the same students were bused up to Albany to participate in a day of lobbying organized by the teachers’ union to persuade the Legislature to give the city schools billions of additional dollars in court-ordered funding.

Social justice teaching is a frivolous waste of precious school hours, especially for poor children, who start out with a disadvantage. School is the only place where they are likely to obtain the academic knowledge that could make up for the educational deprivation they suffer in their homes. The last thing they need is a wild-eyed experiment in education through social action.

Stern is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. This article is adapted from a commentary in the Summer 2006 City Journal.

Here is Nancy’s response.

I was surprised to read Sol Stern’s comments about School for Democracy and Leadership in his piece, “When Activism Masquerades as Education.” Throughout his interactions with us, he indicated that he was impressed with our students, who are intelligent, articulate, and poised. However, his bias against social justice prevented him from writing fairly about our school.

School for Democracy and Leadership focuses on providing academically challenging work to students who previously did not have access to rigorous education. They read Antigone, study nuclear fission and fusion, and learn about landmark Supreme Court cases. They focus on activism in addition, not to the exclusion, of traditional academics. In a building where the previous school graduated three out of every ten students who entered, our students have been promoted at rates consistently above the 90% mark, while showing significant growth in reading and math skills. This summer, while other high school students vacation, our young people have taken internships throughout the city.

A common complaint about young people revolves around their apathy, so it’s strange that Mr. Stern criticizes our students for creating brochures about their beliefs. He argues that such actions have students focus on victimization. Actually, he has it backwards. Patrick Henry wrote pamphlets; Thomas Jefferson wrote brochures. Our greatest figures in history took a stand based on beliefs. Writing ardently about their beliefs helps students see themselves not as victims but as future civic leaders.

So if our students are proving themselves, both academically and out in the world, what issue does Sol Stern take with our school? He argued with me that all the small schools are “left-wing social justice schools.” In our country, both conservatives and liberals have acted as protectors of social justice; it is one of the essentials values of the United States, as our forefathers fathers strove “to form a more perfect union.”

Mr. Stern and I disagree on many things, but mostly, we agree that access to rigorous academic opportunity is necessary-especially for poor children. I don’t know what he calls that, but I call it social justice.


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