Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hillside Students Marching for Truth

“How many students did you interview,” one of the students in Mark Greenstreet’s public speaking class asked. “Where did you find them?” The class flooded me with questions after reading my blog about their beloved Hillside High School. They attacked me for presenting their school in a negative way. I listened as they shared their deep frustration with how Hillside is portrayed in the press and in the community.

“Why don’t you write about the positive things at Hillside,” another student asked. It is a common argument launched at those in the press. People blame the media for reporting the news. Mine is a difficult position. As a journalist, I have an obligation to share the news-not make news. As an advocate for youth, I’m constantly looking for ways to improve the conditions of those who lack the resources needed to achieve their dreams.

Reporting on Hillside was a difficult task. My blog was written with the intent of sharing a culture at Hillside that must be reversed before changing the perception of the school. I hoped to bring to the forefront that Earl Pappy has been set up to fail, and that the next person appointed Hillside’s principal is doomed the day he or she takes reign.

Meeting with the students at Hillside reminded me of all that is right with the school. The truth is Hillside suffers from some of the same dynamics facing others schools within the Durham system. There’s one major difference. Hillside is being sabotaged by outsiders. The alumni and parents of Hillside have been given far too much control. Hillside struggles due to a serious identity crisis. In holding on to the old, it grapples with moving forward in a way that prepares students for life in this new technological age.

I listened as students fought to maintain the integrity of their school. Some of them emailed me, “This is a student at hillside high, I'm an junior, i was here when Mr Earl Pappybegin working at hillside,” a student wrote. “He has been the best principle that i have ever had. Also as much as society has depicted hillside give the students no reason to change our actions. Mr Pappy gives students hope that we all could be something. Mr Pappy has been very successful in helping students get in to collage such as thr graduates of 2007 2008 2009. So please pray for our school and not talking about the next generation also if more adults would fall on there knees instead of opening there mouth and moving on there own wheel and do gods wheel. THING AT HILLSIDE WILL GET BETTER!!! Hillside Students love Mr pappy past his strict rules and his high standard for us and our success!!! THANKS GOD BLESS.” I read and posted it as it was written.

“hello how u doing i am student at hillside high school and i was reading what you wrote about hillside and i just want to say something how can you write about us and you dont walk these halls everyday you cant get your information base of off what one student tell you i am in the 11th grade and i feel like that Mr.Pappy have done a lot for this school and he care about the students and they stafey so until you come and visit the school please dont bad mouth us thank you.” Again, I read and posted the email as it was written.

I looked past the grammatical errors to get a feel for the emotions the students at Hillside carry. They are frustrated at how their school has become the subject of criticism. The consistent theme is their deep admiration for Earl Pappy. They all feel he has made a huge difference. Yes, they understand the school has problems, but, in their minds, things have gotten better-much better.

Many have pointed at the decline in test scores since Pappy arrived at Hillside. What many of the critics of Hillside fail to share is the change in the test. The end or course test administered by the state became more difficult after Pappy arrived. The decline in test scores is a reflection of those changes more than an indictment on the work of Earl Pappy.

The students at Hillside are reading my blog. They are upset due to the perception their school has been portrayed in a negative way out of malice. The truth must be told about Hillside and the other schools in Durham. Hillside is not alone. Hillside has problems with gangs. Northern has problems related to race. What gets reported and how it is shaped is often rendered out of presuppositions based on race. Hillside is suffering due to a long standing battle to overcome its image, and the students are angry that they are measured based on those assumptions.

What will it take to change things? The first step is to take power away from the groups that are sabotaging the school. The alumni should be silenced. They have a level of control not found in any other Durham High School. Next, community groups like the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People need to be checked. Their role in managing Hillside has circumvented the function of the principal. In addition, parents should assume a more positive posture in promoting the education of their children. Their role is not to fight against the principal, but to work alongside the principal to advance the goals of the school.

Add to this the need for stability among the staff at Hillside. The high turnover is impacting the school in a negative way. Changes need to take place within the guidance office. Far too many mistakes are made related to the management of classes needed for graduation. Finally, there is a need for a critical examination of the role of security at Hillside. There are far too many incidents of fights started by law enforcement.

The problems at Hillside are not the fault of Earl Pappy. He is the scapegoat forced out to cover deeper issues within the school. The alumni, parents, law enforcement, burn-out with staff and frustrated students all bundled together equal a school in need of change.

So, to all of my friends over at Hillside, I’m not the bad guy. I’m that dude who wants to see things change.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another One Bites the Dust: Hillside Principal Dismissed

Sources have confirmed that Earl Pappy will not be retained as Principal at Hillside High School in Durham, NC. Is anyone surprised by that news? Pappy getting axed follows a long list of hit and miss assignments hoped to elevate the school beyond its horrific reputation. Pappy is most recent scapegoat to be canned because folks aren’t ready to face the harsh truth.

We’re told the decision is the result of poor test scores and disciplinary problems in the school. Officials confiscated three guns during a recent check. One was on campus and two were discovered in the parking lot of the Town ‘n Country store across the street. An official indicated students were taken by surprise because two checks took place within the same month. Hillside was behind its ordered gun checks, thus two happened back to back.

The student with the gun in the school claimed gang affiliation. I was told by youth in the school that gang fights have been planned for after school in the Town ‘n Country parking lot. The battles within the school have become so common that students take them as part of the Hillside High experience. The brawls in the school take place despite the presence of law enforcement. One student told me little is done to secure the safety of students in the school.

Hillside is no different than many schools across America. Poor academic performance and disciplinary problems are indicative of a shift in the mindset of students in certain schools. There is an advancing culture that needs to be addressed before it spreads out of control. The drive for education is circumvented with an obsession with keeping things real, ghetto or hood. These terms can be interchanged when assessing the attitudes and opinions of some of the students at schools like Hillside.

My interviews with students uncovered a number of startling assumptions. Students lack respect for those who lead them. They talk of teachers having sex with students, teachers getting high with students, teachers making advances on their parents. Listening to students talk left me frustrated and disgusted at how they feel about their school and those given the task of managing their education. The problem goes deeper than uncovering if these rumors are true. In the minds of many of the students it is true. When an impression becomes deeply engrained it becomes truth for those incapable of seeing things any other way.

On last week, there was a drug raid outside the school. Sources indicate police had a lead that one student was dealing drugs on campus. A dog from the K-9 unit was on site to locate drugs. They searched the student’s car. The incident disrupted class. Parents parked outside the school waiting to pick up their children had to contend with the image of police cars, the K-9 Unit and a student standing next to the car being checked for drugs. How is a parent to feel knowing drugs could have been inside the school?

Problems go beyond the impression of ghetto life. Recently, I helped a student at Hillside with a writing project. “It doesn’t matter what I write,” the student said. “All the teacher is gonna do is count the pages. They don’t even read what we write.” I was astonished by what the student said. If true, and I’m not saying that it is, students aren’t being prepared to succeed. Could it be that students are allowed to matriculate when they lack the basic skills needed to move to the next level?

Again, there is a developing culture within our schools that it making it increasingly more difficult to teach. If not careful, some of our schools will become dumping grounds where students go in wait of their release date. Sound familiar? That’s what incarceration looks like. Maybe in the minds of some of these students school is like prison.

In evaluating cultures it is critical to hear from those who are part of the community in question. This is complicated when the outsiders have clear expectations related to those within that culture. The outsiders, in this case, are administrators, teachers, parents and a concerned community. They come with their action plans, measures of success and models for change.
The numbers are examined and it is assumed it must be the fault of the person in charge when goals and objectives aren’t fulfilled. That’s when the game begins. The search unfolds for the next fool who will step into the jungle with a promise to change things. Sorry, it won’t work. It can’t work. Why? Because action plans and measures of success and all the others tools used to advance change have to take into account the culture of the crowd it hopes to impact.

The culture at Hillside has to change, and that, Ladies and Gentlemen, will take more than the next Super Negro to walk in the halls with a nice wardrobe, resume and inspirational message. It takes moving the school beyond being that dumping ground that feeds all that negative energy.
Most think it’s just a school. No, this is the ghetto baby, and this is the way we do it. This is what a school looks like with the culture of the hood takes control.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Theology of Hell Versus The Gospel of Inclusion

I’m tired of all that talk about Hell. Talk of the old fiery place seems to get in the way of more pressing issues related to faith. Obligations like loving your neighbour and serving the downtrodden take a back seat to scaring people to the alter to give their lives to Jesus. I’m convinced that many Christians sign on the old dotted line to secure Hell Insurances versus a real commitment to the teachings of Christ.

My concerns with the fire and brimstone messages of the Church have led me to follow the work of Carlton Pearson.Pearson was a star among Pentecostal Christians. He was an advisor to President Bush, served as a guest host on the Trinity Broadcast Network, worked as a member of the Oral Roberts University board of trustees, and led a 6,000-member megachurch before his theological shift.

On September 7, 2009, Pearson preached his final sermon at New Dimensions. The church has been folded into All Souls Unitarian Church-the largest church in the Unitarian denomination. Before closing their doors, New Dimensions was billed as the friendliest, trendiest, most radically inclusive worship experience. Pearson tried to prove that hell doesn’t exist.

“I wanted a place where my people could find safe harbour,” Pearson told the Associated Press after closing the doors at New Dimensions. “They’re already outcasts in the evangelical-charismatic community.” They are outcast because they have embraced a “gospel of inclusion” that asserts all people will go to heaven. The rise and fall of Pearson brings to the forefront an intense theological debate that is deeply rooted in the need to delineate those who make it from those who don’t.

The “gospel of inclusion” is more about affirming God’s love and work in securing the salvation of the world, versus a concentration on the limits of those who find themselves ousted due to their works and thoughts. The “gospel of inclusion” seeks to love people to the kingdom rather than to scare them to the cross.

The debate on the validity of Pearson’s claims has far reaching impacts in reaching the outcast of the world. The theology of hell asserts an obligation on the part of the sinner to: (1) confess sin, (2) accept Christ and (3) change their ways as a measure of their faith. Hell becomes the place assigned those unwilling or incapable of abiding by the expectations of the Church.

That’s when things get s tricky and contentious. Hell theology grants the community of believers the right and power to determine who gets in and who is cast to eternal damnation. Faith is subverted by works. The traditional contention is that one is “saved by faith, not works”; however, works, in the theology of Hell, are used to determine faith.

The language of the Church becomes muddled in relating its position on Hell. The role of grace depends on the time in which it is used. Grace applies to those who have no relationship with God and come to Christ-by faith. Upon coming to Christ judgement settles in. It is works, not grace or faith, that assigns ones position in the kingdom.

All of this talk about Hell leaves me frustrated on the work that goes undone due to our obsession over the wrong message. For me, it doesn’t matter if hell exists. I don’t spend much time dealing with the furniture in heaven or the temperature in hell. What concerns me are matters related to life in the here and now. Things like the academic performance of youth. Things life the economic conditions that hinder so many around the globe and the existence of structures that oppress men and women. I worry about those who are left out due to the mean spirits of those who believe they are the holders of truth.

I’ve kept my eyes on the ministry of Carlton Pearson for other reasons. Like me, he stands outside the box. He took a risk. He stood for the validation of those who came seeking spiritual truth. He refused to cast them out, force them to be like others, and to keep them hiding due to the judgments of others.

New Dimensions had to close their doors. Is this the fate of those who refuse to think like other Christians? I Hope not.