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Considering Human Rights Education as U.S. Public School Reform

In a climate where high-stakes testing, accountability, and the privatization of public schooling are the dominant discourses surrounding educational reform in the United States, sound pedagogical methods that promote the development of the whole person are often viewed as supplementary to the "basics," or simply ignored all together. By creating mandates that focus solely on test scores, narrow conceptions of learning, and discipline, these policies overlook other factors, like overall school culture and values-based learning, that may improve schools and address inequities in schooling. Thus, left out of these policy equations are the very pedagogical practices and structures that re-socialize students academically and equip them with the tools to succeed in school and in life.

This essay, therefore, examines how a comprehensive approach to Human Rights Education (HRE) in schools might fill this void by featuring a school that enacts this form of education not only as a means to promote democratization and active citizenship (through its curriculum), but also to confront existing inequities in U.S. schooling (through high student retention). As such, I present an alternate view to the dominant discourses that both demonize public schools and suggest reform must come by way of increased testing, privatization, and disciplinary control. Instead, I view public schools as sites of possibility and urge policy makers to examine authentic strategies, such as a holistic human rights approach, to redress systemic and structural injustices, and truly work to benefit children. While prominent HRE scholars like Monisha Bajaj, Nancy Flowers, and Felisa Tibbitts demonstrate how HRE can foster attitudes of tolerance, respect, and solidarity within and beyond the school community, as well as increase student social and political engagement, I also contend that HRE can serve as motivation for young people to stay in and do well in school. Since an authentic human rights approach to education engages young people as actors in their own learning, I argue that attention to process re-socializes students academically, and is therefore equally as important as the product, which is the learning and inculcation of human rights values. In this sense, HRE can serve as a valid and necessary part of public school revitalization and reform.

My analysis is based on sixteen months of ethnographic research conducted between 2006–2008 at Humanities Preparatory Academy (Prep), a small public high school in New York City. Despite serving a population that is often described as "at risk," the school maintains very high graduation and college acceptance rates, and extremely low dropout rates. The data collection process included participant observation at the school, interviews with former and current students, teachers, and administrators, and anecdotal surveys. The research, which foregrounds youth experiences at this site, suggests that most students believed the school created a humane environment in which a culture of respect, tolerance, and democracy flourished. As a result, many students, including those who had previously felt marginalized from schooling, found refuge and acceptance at Prep.

In the last two decades, public discourse in the United States about "failing" public schools has permeated the urban educational landscape, paving the way for macro-level policy reforms ostensibly designed to improve schools. Tied to accountability strategies that intend to increase student achievement, these initiatives, like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core, measure success through student and school performances on standardized tests. Despite these attempts at reform, many critics argue that these initiatives have done little to improve education for youth, and in some cases, have exacerbated existing inequities in schooling, particularly among students of color and those that have been historically marginalized from schooling. Studies have repeatedly shown that these populations are more vulnerable to dropping out of school than their wealthier and white counterparts, and that the gap among these groups has only widened with increased high stakes testing policies.

Many studies show how school climate also contributes to pushing students out of school. The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), for instance, have all published reports revealing the disproportionate ways in which New York City students were subject to degrading treatment in the classroom, unfair disciplinary policies, and a threatening police and security presence. Rather than creating safer schools, these punitive measures have only created hostile learning environments. As these studies indicate, students who are frequently disciplined or suspended from school are much more likely not to complete high school. Moreover, these "zero tolerance" discipline policies often work in tandem with high-stakes testing. As the former criminalizes students for minor infractions of school rules, the latter encourages administrators to push out students that do not improve their schools' overall test scores.

In response to over-policing and over-testing in schools, NESRI has urged for a human rights framework to education that,

includes not only teaching essential academic knowledge and skills, but also creating a positive school environment, supporting the emotional and behavioral development of young people, and encouraging students to participate in developing the school policies that impact their education.

Thus, HRE must go beyond what content is learned and taught in the classroom and be applied in a more comprehensive manner. As noted by Felisa Tibbitts, human rights education historically "has primarily focused on teaching and learning," and should "eventually [be] seen as part of an overall 'human rights based approach' to schooling, which calls attention to overall school culture, policies, and practices related to human rights values." By incorporating a holistic approach to HRE, Amnesty International posits that students will assimilate a culture of human rights, so "all members of a given community understand, value and protect human rights, where the values of equality, dignity, respect, non-discrimination and participation anchor policies and processes within the community."

Collectively, these approaches provide a frame to understand both how Prep institutionalizes a pervasive form of HRE and creates a climate of dignity for young people that have been most marginalized by the inequities and injustices of American schooling. In the context of New York City, where the opportunities gap remains wide among youth based on race, class, language and (dis)ability, HRE serves as a source of academic re-socialization and drop-out prevention, in addition to a source of human rights learning.

Conceived as a program in a larger school for students who were underserved and were potentially at risk for dropping out, Prep was founded to both engage these students in their learning and rigorously prepare them for college. Due to their success with this population, the program gradually expanded, and four years later, Prep became an autonomous public school. While the school now serves a mixed population of those that may have had previous "success" in schools and those that have struggled, it has maintained a distinct learning environment that, according to the school mission, attempts to (re)engage all students "by personalizing our learning situations, by democratizing and humanizing the school environment, and by creating a 'talking culture,' an atmosphere of informal intellectual discourse among students and faculty." Thus, by constructing a radically alternative educational environment rooted in democracy, public intellectualism, and a caring school culture, Prep presents itself as place that provides a transformative and liberatory experience for its students both within and beyond the sphere of the schooling.

From the outset and by design, the mission of the school has espoused a commitment to personalized, student-centered education, democratic practices, and critical pedagogy. The school is committed to serving a diverse student body that spans the racial and socioeconomic spectrum of New York City. In 2006–2007, the demographic composition of the student body, as identified by students, was as follows: 40 percent Latino/a, 38 percent Black/African-American, 12 percent white, 6 percent Asian, and 4 percent Other. Twelve percent were special education, which is slightly above the city average of 11 percent. This percentage did not include students who had been de-certified from special education status and were still receiving some auxiliary services from the school. Approximately 54 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, although the administration of Prep estimates this as much higher, since high school students do not often submit the requisite forms that qualify them for such.

The schools' graduation and college acceptance rates far surpass average New York City statistics. At the time of my research, the school had between 91 and 100 percent college acceptance rates since it opened in 1997, while the city-wide rate never went above 62 percent in any of these years, as documented by the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The dropout rate has been consistently under four percent, as opposed to the New York Department of Education documented city rate of 19.9 percent. While the school is relatively smaller than most high schools (the numbers fluctuate between 180 and 200), it is still considered at capacity because the school is housed in a small corridor on the third floor of a larger school building.

When alumni were asked to write briefly about their experience at Prep in an anecdotal survey, most described the school in an extremely positive light. While the reasons for this varied among students (some wrote about academics, others democratic practices, others school culture), it was quite common for them to view their experience at the school as transformative. One alumna, Queenia, states in an interview, "I think [Prep] changed my perspective on life and what my potential as a human being is in this world." She later describes how she realized that she could become an agent of change in the world, after going with the school to City Hall to protest high-stakes testing:

We actually went and we read those letters as part of our campaign. You hear about people doing these amazing things, these protests and these campaigns ... you never realize that those people are the same people as you. There's nothing about them that's extraordinary, except that they choose to be extraordinary people. (May 6, 2007, emphasis added)

By engaging students like Queenia in developing strategies to educational policy, Prep helps students realize their own ability to affect change in arenas they previously thought unimaginable.

For the alumni that transferred into Prep from other high schools, their experience at Prep was often starkly defined in contradistinction to their previous one. In an interview, another alumna, Dalia, who transferred from a large public high school, describes how her old school as a place where "the education level was actually not so bad, [but] the environment [was] kind of stifling ... it's just day in and day out, you study your subject and then you're out, but there was no depth to it and that's what I was looking for" (February 15, 2007). In contrast, she describes Prep as a place that fostered an overall culture of respect and tolerance that went beyond the traditional academic curriculum.

The overall atmosphere at Prep was wonderful because there was no structure or Apartheid, if I can use that word, between teachers, students, everyone interacted with each other, everyone looked at one another as equals and it created a true sense of democracy within a school, which is quite rare.

To her, it was just as important to create a positive school environment that valued all of its members and treated them with dignity, as it was to have a strong academic curriculum. Moreover, by using the word "apartheid," she is explicitly utilizing human right language, showing she has assimilated its values and concepts.

For others, the human rights approach employed by Prep explicitly helped keep them in school. Lisa, another alumna, shares how the excessively punitive environment of her previous school made her completely disinterested in attending. Through Prep's participatory curriculum and its supportive environment, she credits the school for (re)socializing her academically:

I wasn't happy at my old school. ... It came to the part I was so miserable I was failing. I just didn't care about school. Well actually it wasn't that I didn't care about school, just being there made me lose interest I guess. ... The first day of my Sophomore year I did not have the money for my books. ... Because I didn't have the money right when they wanted and refused to acknowledge my financial situation, I was sent to detention. ... I was punished for something that was beyond my control. During Junior year I was beginning to lose interest in going to school. I stopped going and did not care about my work. ... I was failing one class after the other as time passed. I did not want to drop out of school. ... Transferring to Prep was the best decision I made for myself during my high school career. I saw myself as being more than that (a dropout). ... I loved Prep! I loved all my classes and I was encouraged to have a voice in the classroom. Prep teachers believed in their students regardless who they were and where they came from. We were seen as individuals and embraced for it. (March 27, 2007)

As indicated by the responses and experiences of students, the type of schooling at Prep interrupts some of the alienating processes that are often found in mainstream and traditional schools. In this sense, Prep realizes many aspects of its schools' mission that endeavors to not only "prepare students for the rigors of college work and motivate them to desire and plan for a higher education," but also to create a culture that, among other things,

... exemplif[ies] the values of democracy: mutual respect, cooperation, empathy, the love of humankind, justice for all, and service to the world ... provide[s] a haven for students who have previously experienced school as unresponsive to their needs as individuals ... and help[s] all students to find their voice and to speak knowledgeably and thoughtfully on issues that concern their school, their world.

By articulating these goals clearly in the mission, these student experiences are not incidental, as the type of education is deliberate and thoroughly supported by the ways in which a culture of human rights (and dignity and worth) is circulated throughout the school. This is manifest in the context of what is taught in the classroom, as well as through the intentional ways the school engages students as both participatory actors in their education and agents of broader social change.

In order to realize their mission, Prep enacts HRE through several structures, processes, and practices that allow for its full dissemination. While I have argued elsewhere that fundamental to Prep's success is that the environment is perceived to be one imbued with care, questioning, and critical consciousness, it is important to note that the specific structures and process in the school are crucial mechanisms that allow this culture to flourish. In this sense, Prep is an exemplar of how HRE can be fully implemented in schools. While this framework emerged from a specific context, the practices at Prep can provide concrete examples for those looking for ways to enact human rights praxis in schools. Although there are many ways in which Prep implements HRE comprehensively, including through extra curricular programming and staff development, I focus on the Core Values framework, the academic curriculum, and the participatory structure since students mentioned them the most during data collection.

First, the Core Values framework serves as the moral fiber of the unique education that Prep intends to provide for its students, and is thereby one of the primary processes that supports HRE in the school. By framing the institution with the values of commitment to peace, justice, and democracy, and respect for humanity, intellect, truth, and diversity, the school aspires for students to assimilate them and exemplify them on campus and beyond. There are many ways in which the Core Values are integrated and discussed in the comprehensive curriculum at HPA. One initial way is during the first week of school in which they are explained during school orientation. Old students are invited to share their perception of the school core values with new students through skits, roundtables, and/or discussions. Often, classes are explicitly connected to a particular Core Value so that they are not just written on paper, but also woven into various aspects of the curriculum. A class on post–U.S. Civil War Reconstruction, for example, was tied to the Core Values of Peace and Justice. Perhaps the most formal ways that the Core Values are incorporated are through the End Term Ceremony and the Fairness Committee. While I describe the Fairness Committee later in this essay, the End Term Ceremony provides a space for students to nominate their peers for a Core Value Award, such as "Strong Commitment" or "Emerging Voice" in a particular category. This process, by which students nominate others, encourages them to think about and reflect on the meaning of the Core Values and how they might apply to ones daily actions and life. Moreover, it reflects the school's democratized environment.

Prep also operationalizes HRE through its academic curriculum, particularly as the classes at Prep diverge from what is found at most New York City schools. In general, classes are much smaller since Prep spreads the administrative work among the faculty. By hiring mostly teachers, there is a flattened governance model that allows for democratic and consensus-based decision making regarding curriculum and school policy. Prep also heterogeneously groups its classes so there are no prerequisite demarcations based on age, grade levels, or ability for students to take a particular class. While Prep makes sure that its courses connect to state requirements, students who are sophomores or seniors can be in the same history class as long as they are interested in the subject matter. This contributes to generating whole school community membership that is not segregated by markers that typically separate students in other school settings.

Additionally, instead of standardized high-stakes testing, Prep uses performance-based assessment (PBA) for graduation. Akin to the college level thesis system, students work on individualized projects in each subject area and ultimately present their work to a committee for review. The committee uses a common rubric to determine whether or not the student needs to revise and re-present her work. While other public schools in New York State must administer hierarchically imposed high-stakes tests, Prep is fortunate that it can support PBAs as they have fought political battles with other like-minded schools in order to do so. Because it is driven by thematic, in-depth projects, PBAs have allowed for the creation of student- and teacher-generated courses that reflect human rights themes like "The Global Economy and Human Rights," "Revolutions in Latin America," and "Math and Social Justice." According to Meier, project-based learning also fosters democratic and inquiry-based learning because ideally, students develop projects around their own interests and questions about the world. Furthermore, since classes are in longer blocks rather than short periods, students and teachers have the time to pursue inquiry-based work together rather than rush through teaching and learning content.

Another way in which Prep disseminates HRE is through its non-academic participatory structures that support learning, critical dialogue, and democratic engagement. These include Advisory, Town Meeting, and the Fairness Committee, all of which are part of the school day and built in to the overall schedule. Advisory is a daily class period, capped at fifteen students, in which students not only discuss issues that are often expanded upon in Town Meeting, but also receive academic support, develop leadership skills, and build community with the other members of their group. Common issues include those affecting students' personal spheres, ranging from college readiness, female athletes, and gang violence to relationship abuse. While these topics do not always explicitly connect with local or global human rights issues, this space is a fundamental disseminator of HRE since the issues discussed in advisory often stem from the students' themselves. By privileging what matters most to them in the world, this space allows for the validation of multiple perspectives and locally relevant issues, all of which are part of promoting a culture of human rights and dignity.

Town Meeting, which is a weekly whole-school gathering where students and teachers discuss a myriad of personal, community, school-wide, national, and global issues, is also an integral space for discussion, debate, and HRE. Students determine Town Meeting topics in their advisories, and each week, a different Advisory facilitates the discussion or debate around the selected issue. Topics for discussion vary and include items like school policies, police brutality, metal detectors in schools, environmental racism, the military industrial complex, and local and national elections. During times of local and/or global events, Town Meetings often buttress what is learned in classes so that students can be informed about these issues. During September 11 and its aftermath, Town Meeting proved to be a pivotal space to process emotions and reactions to the events and the subsequent U.S. war and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Prep is also one of a few schools in New York City that actively uses a form of restorative justice, known as The Fairness Committee, as a means to address and discuss infractions in the community. While there are other schools starting to adopt restorative justice modes in New York City, namely though the work of the Dignity In Schools Campaign and Teachers Unite, Prep has had the Fairness Committee since its inception as a school program. A mechanism through which students can discuss with one another and with teachers violations of the community core values, the Fairness Committee involves students in the process of brainstorming alternatives and solutions to these dilemmas. Examples include inappropriate language, missing class, vandalism, and so on. It is often in these spaces that students can influence and implement school-wide policy through a direct democratic model and emphasis on critical dialogue and healthy debate.

Through enacting a curriculum that both validates students' humanity and worth, and teaches them to do the same to others, Prep exemplifies the praxis of HRE. Prep not only disseminates a culture of human rights among its students, but serves as a form of dropout prevention and academic re-socialization for them as well. While present educational policies narrowly focus on testing and discipline despite evidence that these initiatives have only exacerbated inequities in schooling, mainstreaming HRE offers hope that public schools can work toward further educational access and attainment. In this sense, HRE serves as a means for authentic public school reform since it not only fosters human rights learning, but also serves as a mechanism to include students who have been demoralized by school.

Attention must be paid to context, however, particularly as the HRE curriculum at Prep developed organically and internally. While some of the structures and processes at the school are original and others are borrowed from other institutions, they all have been tweaked or re-made (and continue to be) to meet the needs of the school population. In this sense, HRE should not be rigidly imposed on a school but rather should be dynamically integrated to fluidly embody the key principles of a holistic human rights approach. Nonetheless, Prep offers an instructive source of inspiration to not only see how HRE can be realized, but also how it can meet contemporary educational inequities and revitalize public schooling in the United States.

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2019 18:11

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