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Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 04 June 2012

Professor Michelle Fine (right) with Michelle Maher, an assistant professor at Lewis and Clark's  Graduate School of Education and Counseling

Michelle Fine wants to worry us. She wants to worry us about high stakes testing, and about closing schools that serve communities of color. She wants to worry us about the increasing presence of police on school campuses, school pushout and how policy decisions are creating problems for our youth.

"I want to worry you about the industries of policing and testing, that are making a fortune right now and are not experiencing budget cuts," Fine said.

The Distinguished Professor of Psychology at City University of New York was in Portland to deliver the commencement address at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling. Nationally known for writings on race, sex and justice in education, Fine made time in her schedule to speak to to teachers, counselors and youth advocates at Self Enhancement Inc. on Saturday, June 2. The event was organized by the African American Leadership Forum.

"We have watched, over 30 years, money flowing from education to prisons," she said. "We have 5000 safety officers in New York schools, and they all work for the NYPD.

"If you live in New York you cannot separate education from criminalization. So watch out because it's coming here too.

"The primary public sectors waiting for Black kids right now are prisons and the military."

Fine told the story of New York principal Mark Federman, who was arrested after trying to intervene when police arrested a senior who had arrived at school early to study and meet with a teacher. Teachers, not police, should be in charge of school discipline, she said.

In a talk that ranged from budget cuts in education to how to do research with youth, Fine urged the audience to look carefully at who benefits from budget and policy decisions, and how they affect young people.

The move to judge schools by test scores and to close down schools that don't do well has benefited the testing companies, she said. Yet across the country schools are closing in the name of accountability.

"We need to be asking, 'Why are you spending money on all those tests -- you're cutting teachers and closing schools," she said. "What is your evidence that testing is effective? What is your evidence that closing schools is effective?"

The only study on the impact of closing schools, (by the Stanford University's CREDO research center) suggests that students lose out, she said. In that study, about 33 percent fared measurably worse and about 17 percent fared measurably better, she said. 

"The evidence is that there is an academic loss the year of the closing, because it is so traumatic.

"And what happens to those dispersed bodies? Most kids get enrolled in equally crummy schools. Some never enroll in a new school and become part of the dropout/pushout statistics."

Fine pointed to the differences between schools serving poor students and schools serving well-off families. She said Brandeis High School, for example, was closed down before being reopened as four different schools: two serving poor students of color; a third that also serves poor students was a "second chance school" offering credit recovery courses; and the Frank McCourt School for Journalism, which selects students based on grades. The result is a separate and unequal system, a kind of educational apartheid, Fine said.

"In New York, we're closing down schools for Black and Brown kids and reopening them for the gentry."

Recently, Fine has been working with youth through the Public Science Project to document young people's experiences. About 40 youth worked on the 'Polling for Justice' survey of 1000 of their peers. The survey looked at young peoples' experiences with school, family, police and health care. It also asked about illegal drug use, sexual risks and violence.

When youth are involved in scientific inquiry, they ask different questions because they have knowledge that adults don't have, Fine said.

In attendance were: Dalton Miller Jones, professor emeritus of developmental psychology at Portland State University
(at left) with Dr. Andrae Brown, of Lewis and Clark
(center) and Armando Laguardia, associate professor of education at Washington State University.


The youth researchers rejected calls from adult researchers to ask what they saw as overly intrusive questions about sex, for example. But they added questions that delved deeply into the way young people are treated in public spaces.

"I would not have known about 60 percent of the negative interactions with cops in the last six months," Fine said. "It relates to depression, it relates to missing school."

The research into "Circuits of Dispossession," showed that the youth who have the most difficult life experiences are likely to be from high-poverty neighborhoods, to be youth of color, and/or to be LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender). Boys tended to be more affected than girls.

But the survey also showed that between 30 to 44 percent of those 'most dispossessed' youth were not using illegal drugs, taking risks with sex or behaving violently. Two factors showed up as protecting youth from harm: belonging to a youth group and having a supportive adult in their lives.

That's important to know, Fine said.
"So many kids live in circumstances where if they just stand still, they are in harm's way."

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