2020

President Winfrey? Here’s what we know about Oprah’s education outlook

Oprah Winfrey, right, hosted N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to Newark schools in 2010.

When Oprah Winfrey delivered an emotional, inspirational speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday, many viewed it as an introductory address for a possible presidential run.

Indeed, after years of denying any political ambitions, people close to Winfrey now say she’s open to running for office, according to CNN. (She again denied plans to run on Monday.)

So what would a President Winfrey look like when it comes to education? As with most policy issues, she hasn’t taken a firm stand — but her background, personal giving, and guests on her show, which aired from 1986 until 2011, all offer clues. Here’s what we know.

She understands racism and poverty in America — and how schools can make a difference.

Growing up impoverished in the South and then Milwaukee, Winfrey endured many of the challenges that disproportionately affect poor children in America, including family instability, teen pregnancy, and frequent school changes. (She was also sexually abused by family members.) She credits a fourth-grade teacher with giving her the intellectual energy to persevere.

“I always, because of you, felt I could take on the world,” Winfrey said in a 1989 special where she honored her favorite teachers. “You did exactly what teachers are supposed to do. They create a spark for learning that lives with you from then on.”

As a teenager, Winfrey did so well at her Milwaukee high school that a teacher decided to help her become one of 16 black students to integrate a high school in an affluent suburb. (She later left that school when her mother decided to send her to Nashville, where she also attended a newly integrated high school.) “It was culture shock for me. It was the first time I realized I was poor,” she said during the 1989 show. “But it made a major difference in my life.”

Those experiences left Winfrey believing in the power of schools to change lives, she has said. “I value nothing more in the world than education,” Winfrey said in 2010. “It is the reason why I can stand here today. It is an open door to freedom.”

She has given to education initiatives that cross partisan divides.

As one of the world’s wealthiest women, with a net worth of nearly $3 billion, Winfrey has directed her giving to a wide array of causes, including education. She has donated to charter schools across the country, participated in a collective to reduce high school dropouts, and funded scholarships for students at historically black colleges.

She even launched a school of her own in South Africa that has sent poor girls to elite universities. For a megastar, Winfrey took an unusually personal role in the school’s development: She handpicked the school’s first class; overhauled the leadership when a sex abuse scandal occurred early on; gave students her personal cell phone number; and took the first graduates shopping for dorm-room decor.

The experience gave Winfrey insights into what kinds of efforts might alter the track of poor students’ lives. “I had worked with other organizations, I had written lots of checks, I had started my own big sister program, where I was taking girls on skiing trips and spending time with them and reading. It doesn’t work,” she said in 2017.

“What works is being able to change the trajectory of somebody’s life where you are literally brainwashing them for the good,” Winfrey added, as she reflected on her school’s first decade. “Because what poverty does is brainwashes you to believe that you are not enough.”

She’s also aligned herself with heavyweights of the ‘education reform’ movement.

Many people treated Winfrey’s enormously popular show as an ideal platform to reach Americans of all races and classes — something that can be especially pressing for education influencers, who are often criticized for imposing their ideas on poor communities.

Toward the end of the show’s run, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose it to announce a $100 million gift to overhaul schools in Newark, New Jersey. Also on that episode: then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now U.S. senator. The trio, Winfrey said, “are putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”

One of the most education policy-heavy episodes of Winfrey’s show aired in 2010, when Winfrey promoted the documentary “Waiting for Superman” with a special about “the shocking state of our schools.”

The film galvanized support for charter schools, and teachers unions treated it as an attack. Winfrey gave air time to the director, Davis Guggenheim, as well as to philanthropist Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, then the Washington D.C. schools chief who was attracting attention for trying to fire low-performing teachers.

Winfrey called Rhee “a warrior woman” and appeared sympathetic to Rhee’s agenda, at one point asking her, “Why can’t you just fire bad teachers?” But Winfrey also hit some more positive notes.

“Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you — great ones — in this country,” Winfrey said on the show. “So we’re not talking about you if you are a good teacher.”

As part of the episode, Winfrey capped off a round of giving from her Angel Network philanthropy with $1 million awards to six networks of charter schools, which she suggested were making almost superhuman efforts to help their students.

“Imagine this,” Winfrey said. “A school where high school freshmen, reading at a fourth-grade level, can jump ahead five grades in a single school year. Or a school where teachers stay until 11 at night to help children with their homework, and where children say school is like a second family to them.”

Winfrey’s proclivity to promote heroes sometimes resulted in unstable education initiatives getting a boost: One New Orleans charter school that the Oprah Winfrey Network profiled as a promising turnaround effort closed a year later as one of the lowest-performing schools in Louisiana. And Zuckerberg’s Newark donation, which spurred a controversial package of policy changes for Newark schools, had mixed results: Growth in student achievement dropped for three years, but bounced back in years four and five.

Have her views shifted as many in the Democratic party have shifted their education outlook? We don’t know.

One of Winfrey’s most sustained causes has been Booker, whose U.S. Senate race she supported with fundraising and air time.

Booker’s personal evolution on education issues reflects a broader one within the Democratic party. Early in his career, Booker became known for championing charter schools and sat on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that set out to counter the influence of teachers unions in local elections. But as uneven results and pushback from local communities have racked up, Booker puts less emphasis on the most divisive parts of that agenda. Now, he is more likely to promote pre-kindergarten and criticize Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, than to propose particular policies to improve schools.

That mirrors a broader shift in the education world. Gates, for example, has turned away from funding individual schools and policy initiatives in favor of supporting locally led efforts to improve education.

It’s unclear whether Winfrey is attuned to this shift: Since her show went off the air, Winfrey hasn’t often commented publicly on major matters of public debate, including education issues — although she did endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and expressed disbelief that Donald Trump, like her an entertainer, had been elected instead. (Trump’s nomination, she said at the time, made her feel for the first time “really qualified” to run for office.)

Her speech at the Golden Globes — which focused on empowering women — suggests that Winfrey is ready to be a public influence.

One clue to her general approach could come from the 2010 “Waiting for Superman” special, when Winfrey also underscored that education is a communal challenge, not an individual one.

“Just because your kids are in a good school, because your kids are graduated from school, doesn’t mean that it is not our country’s problem,” Winfrey said. “Our country will suffer if we continue to look the other way.”

By the numbers

5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

PHOTO: (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
With wife Amy Rule by his side, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 he will not seek a third term in office at a press conference on the 5th floor at City Hall in Chicago.

Faced with an alarming report that lays bare shrinking enrollment and racial inequity, Chicago Public Schools must wrestle with some tough decisions. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election means he won’t be the one addressing those issues for much longer.

Here are five questions raised by the report that Emanuel’s successor faces:

What about all those empty seats?

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Historical enrollment and projections at Chicago Public Schools.

The Annual Regional Analysis, compiled by the school district and Kids First Chicago, projects plummeting enrollment to worsen in coming years. The district has more than 145,000 unfilled seats. By 2021 that gap could be more than 156,000 seats.

The next mayor will have to wrestle with that dismal trend just as Emanuel did in his first term, when he pushed the unpopular decision to shutter 50 schools. That move, research shows, exacted a heavy psychological toll on communities and hurt students’ academic achievement, especially in math. Yet, five years after the closings, the district still faces a massive surplus of classroom space, and is closing high schools in Englewood.

Some have argued that the district should change how it calculates space utilization at schools. They say the formula assumes an average class size of 30, and doesn’t adequately account for needs such as special education.

Community members have also called for an end to school closings, and said the city should consider creative solutions such as sharing space with social service agencies, redrawing attendance boundaries, and investing in academic programs to attract more students.

What can the city do to make neighborhood schools more attractive?

The analysis indicates that many families are skipping their neighborhood schools, including top-rated ones, for schools outside their area. Many schools suffer from low enrollment, and reside in communities where residents have cried out for more investments in neighborhood schools.

Kids First CEO Daniel Anello said the remedy should be to “improve quality and tell the community over and over again once you have.”

“There’s disparities terms of access and disparities in quality that need to be addressed,” he said. “The benefit of having a regional analysis is that people can see where those disparities are, and think about how we should invest in specific places to ensure the families there have access to high-quality options.”

Austin resident Ronald Lawless, who works as a community organizer and education consultant, was baffled to see that the West Side region, which includes Austin, has nearly 30,000 unfilled seats, about one in three of them at top-rated schools. Yet less than 40 percent of kids in the community attend their zoned neighborhood school. He said the district must combat stigma and misinformation that keeps people from neighborhood schools.

How can Chicago dig beyond school ratings to evaluate schools?

The analysis leans heavily on the annual school ratings policy.  But no rating system can tell the whole story about school quality — and Chicago’s ratings rely primarily on standardized test scores and attendance, metrics that often reflect the socioeconomic makeup of the areas from which schools draw their students.

If the new mayor’s administration continues current practice, it will undoubtedly run into opposition from community groups that have been vocal about what they see as shortcomings.

Alexios Rosario-Moore, research and policy associate at the community group Generation All, said, “What we need is a qualitative assessment that involves universities, researchers, non-profit organizations and communities to determine what kind of programming that community needs.”

Anello of Kids First said no measure is perfect, but that Chicago’s school rating approach stacks up favorably against other districts. Yet, he conceded that the ratings don’t fully flesh out what it’s like in classrooms, and that “we can always be working to make it a better measure.”

 

 

How does school choice intersect with transportation?

For better or for worse, the analysis showed that more and more students are attending choice schools, meaning buildings outside their assigned attendance area.

Some students have to travel far for the academic programs and high-quality schools they want, especially those coming from high-poverty neighborhoods and communities of color.

Elementary students travel 1.5 miles on average, but the average distance to school for elementary students is highest (2.6 miles) in the Greater Stony Island region, which includes far South Side neighborhoods like Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore.

High school students travel 3.6 miles on average, but high schoolers in the Greater Stony Island area commute and average of 5 miles, tied for the longest community with the Far Southwest Side region that includes the Beverly and Morgan Park community areas.

Raise Your Hand spokeswoman Jennie Biggs said, “a choice-based system in a large, urban district that lacks universal, free transportation isn’t even providing the same set of choices to all kids.”

And Rosario-Moore of Generation All said he finds it surprising “that in a city so oriented around a school choice model that public transportation is not free to all students.”

How can Chicago better engage its rich arts community through public schools?

Chicago doesn’t offer its highly-desirable fine arts programs equitably across the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown. Ingenuity Executive Director Paul Sznewajs praised Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson for investments in the arts and partnerships with cultural institutions and agencies, but said Chicago’s next mayor should do a better job of tapping into the city’s rich arts community.

He said that the Annual Regional Analysis focuses more narrowly on “a small sliver of arts in schools,” because it identifies available seats in what amounts to fine arts-focused magnet schools, of which he said there are probably 50-60 in the city.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available to elementary school students in each “planning area.”

But even if the school district were to double the number of arts magnet schools, Sznewajs said it must address equity, “so that when students walk into school, whether in Englewood or Ravenswood, that child can expect to the get the same things when it comes to the arts.”

Q&A

How one Memphis leader works to stop both ends of the school-to-prison pipeline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michael Spearman supervises Shelby County Schools' 24 behavior specialists to get to the "why" behind student misconduct.

Michael Spearman knows firsthand the consequences of harshly punishing students for misbehavior, as opposed to figuring out the underlying cause.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michael Spearman currently works at the detention center at Regional One Health when inmates need treatment. He also serves as a “crisis intervention officer” to respond to mentally ill people who come in contact with police.

In addition to his day job as lead behavior specialist for Shelby County Schools, he has spent more than two decades as an officer and detective with the Memphis Police Department. If the school system can’t address a student’s behavior, those students are more likely to enter the justice system as teens or adults. This reality for many students, especially students of color, is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Now that the Memphis school system has been able to add back behavior specialists and other personnel meant to meet students’ emotional needs, Spearman says there’s hope to disrupt the pipeline.

His team of about two dozen behavior specialists, in addition to meeting with students who have been suspended to get to the “why” behind their misbehavior, are working with school staff on classroom management, creating and using meaningful alternatives to out-of-school suspension, and reducing time students are out of school.

This year, behavior specialists will initiate small “restorative circles” at 15 schools. People connected to the student — for example a teacher or another school staffer, a pastor, a family member — gather to talk about the student’s behavior and determine next steps. Too often, advocates say, schools skip over alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, which contribute to students losing motivation to study or open the opportunity to get involved in petty or violent crime.

Chalkbeat sat down with Spearman to talk about strategies that have resulted in students changing their behavior. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you see your roles interplaying with each other? How does each job impact the other?

In the Memphis Police Department, I’ve always worked in roles where I dealt with youth and the community. When I first graduated from the academy, I patrolled all of the public housing projects in Memphis, and provided community activities and services for the youth in the housing developments. I was one of the lead community officers where I oversaw the Boy Scouts, coached in the Police Athletic League, and was one the lead mentors.

From that, I really realized I had a passion for education. Working in public housing, my shift was from 4 p.m. to midnight. So, I decided to apply to be a substitute teacher. I knew I wanted to go into education, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Would I have to leave the police department? Could I stay? I started substitute teaching at both Bellevue Middle and Vance Middle schools and got my teaching certification.

From there, I was blessed to work as an officer at Bellevue and Vance schools. Being in that role introduced me to education and the processes as far as academics and behavior. I served as a mentor, counselor, anything an officer could be in the building. My thing was building relationships with parents, with the staff, and students.

I was then tapped to serve with the FBI with the Internet Crimes Against Children unit — we arrested producers of child pornography, sex offenders. I took some courses through the FBI about behavior triggers of sexual molesters and interviewed criminals or people with behavior issues. That’s when I saw my career coming full circle.

Meaning, you saw those behavior triggers in students you had worked with?

"When you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out."Michael Spearman

Right. When I was with the FBI, I said, “Wow, this has something to do with the educational piece.” After the FBI, I came back to the Memphis Police Department and worked with the sex crimes unit for children 13 and under who had been abused.

I was interviewing based on their behaviors and triggers — why they do what they do. That’s when I started noticing the defendants were becoming younger. And there were some defendants I knew from working in the schools. That solidified why I’m doing what I’m doing, understanding why things happen, and that I wanted to make a difference.

Tell me about your previous role at Cypress Middle School as a family engagement specialist.

I worked with the principal to build the culture of the school. We wanted to decrease chronic absenteeism, decrease tardiness, decrease out-of-school suspensions, utilize in-school suspension more, and assist teachers with strategies in classroom management. And my favorite role, I was also athletic director.

I loved every day at Cypress Middle. It was a little different because I grew up in South Memphis and I was at a North Memphis school. But as police officers, we know how to adapt to different situations; we’re trained to adapt. We’re also trained to observe and not have tunnel vision.

The first thing I wanted to do is find the parents and get parent participation back. I always think about myself and how would I want to be treated. If you know how you want to be treated, that’s how you should want the next person to be treated. Once we get the parents involved in the school, then we can get the community back involved. We went from probably eight parents coming to the parent-teacher organization meetings to about 50. (The school closed in 2014.)

Want to learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline and those working to stop it?

    • Randy McPherson, student support manager of behavior and student leadership for Shelby County Schools; Rod Peterson, principal of Oakhaven Middle School; and LeTicia Taylor, licensed restorative practices trainer will discuss restorative justice and conflict resolution at a panel event is hosted by Stand for Children in partnership with Campaign Nonviolence Memphis, Pax Christi Memphis, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, and the National Civil Rights Museum.
    • When: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18
    • Where: National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry Street
      Memphis, TN 38103
    • RSVP here: https://ckbe.at/2pmrSlf

We would walk the neighborhood twice a month with teachers on Saturdays and have cookouts or other events to let parents know we were a part of the community. We would talk about the academic programs, tutoring, and character education we had going on at the school.

We had sponsors who would donate prizes for students with good attendance records and getting to school on time. Those same sponsors would send volunteers who would help us make phone calls to parents to let them know what was going on. We had a computer lab for parents working on their GED, and we worked with a city agency to help with job placement.

You’ve mentioned “triggers” several times. Can you elaborate on what those are and what works to minimize those?

When I say triggers, for me it’s about what ticks them off, what makes them angry. I’m going to use this word “checking” in Memphis that means somebody is talking about what you look like or things of that sort. And then you have a lot of family issues in the African-American community. When you look at broken homes, we don’t have a lot of fathers in the home. So, that’s a major trigger.

I’ve seen those triggers on every level of law enforcement. You have some who have been violated by their parents or a family member at young age and they never told anybody. So, when you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out. A lot of it comes out incorrectly and people have issues that the outcome is prison time.

On the education side, I would just take the time to sit down with students who had been suspended a lot or “frequent flyers” as we call them and talk with parents or guardians or someone they are close to in the household. I also made household visits. I love speaking with parents face-to-face when they’re home from work to hear what’s going on and figure out how to help the student. That’s anything from helping out with the student’s character to how to get the student to school on time.

On the law enforcement side, the only thing you could do is talk about the what if. If you could relive that incident, how would you handle it? We come back with what you should have done on how to interact, communicate, and cope.

How do schools contribute to that problem?

"Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves."Michael Spearman

I believe now the school district is doing a great job and trying to decrease and stop the school-to-prison pipeline. The district has systems in place now where you have advocates in the schools, you have your behavior specialists, you have in-school suspension, you have your professional school counselors. And you have outside organizations that are working in the schools now. We have the adults in the building who can identify you and pull you to the side on a mentor-mentee basis to talk about problems before a suspension or expulsion is issued.

I know from being a part of this system and trying to make it better for our African-American males, the district is doing a tremendous job to reduce to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The more resources we have for the employees the better it works out for the school district and the relationships we build with the students — because, always remember, relationship-building is the most important piece of the school day. If someone out of all those resources can build that solid relationship with the student who has been defiant and fighting, that one person in the building can relate and talk to the student about what’s going on. Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves. You see the fruits of your labor when that child who was acting up on Monday comes in on Wednesday and gets to school on time, in uniform, and goes and sits in that teacher’s class who’s probably been referring him 10 to 12 times.

You have to keep asking about their academics too. Because now they’ll know their mentor is going to ask them about what they learned, they’ll be more attentive.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
“Progressive discipline” chart behavior specialists are helping schools implement.