May 28, 2009

Overcrowding Our Educational System

It seems that there is always a shortage of teachers in big cities across the United States. Additionally, there seems to be overcrowding schools in these same cities. One example that I know of is in New York.

Every fall, the newspaper headlines focus on overcrowding schools in low-income communities and the shortage of teachers in those same schools. Ultimately what ends up happening is that the schools stay overcrowded, the teachers under populated, the problem moves out of the headlines and gone until the following fall, when the cycle repeats itself again. However, this year, things might be a little different.

For the first time in maybe the history of New York and public education, the poorer communities are not the only ones struggling with this problem. Upper-class New Yorkers are finding themselves being turned away from their neighborhood schools or being put on a waiting list for schools that they are zoned for.

It’s rare the problems that affect the poor also affect the rich in the same way, but in this example of public education, both groups are struggling to find affordable ways to educate their children this upcoming school year.

I am conflicted in how to feel about this situation. On one hand, I feel like this is sweet justice. For the first time, those privileged and entitled are feeling helpless and hopeless in a situation that they can’t control. They now get a sense of what life is like for the millions living below the poverty level and with little means for improving their lives, let alone the education of their children.

However, at the same time, I want to use this situation to bring people together.

The privileged parents who are finding waiting lists for their neighborhood schools have the means and know how to work within the system and can put pressure on these cities to correct this situation: whether it means building new schools, hiring qualified teachers, whatever.

My experience in the public school system comes from the vantage point of a former teacher. Working in an overcrowded school makes the experience of a teacher that much more challenging, no matter how much money the parents have. I want to think that parents, whatever their financial or political means will right this wrong that cities are doing in under-funding the public school system.

This is a great opportunity for people to come together and work towards the betterment of the public school system and the children that it serves.

I for one am in favor of supporting the children and reminding parents that in order for their children to be successful, they need to put their collective pressure on the city governments to meet their demands.

No matter how much money the parents have, the power here is in numbers and resources, which is why both groups of parents can put their support behind their children to make sure there are enough schools and teachers to educate their children, to become the future leaders of this country, and the world. What other options do we have?

This post was written by Matthew Reid, volunteer blogger with the Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. A native New Yorker, Matthew now lives in Boston and works for a math curriculum development company.

May 13, 2009

American Violet Blooms in the Mire of Injustice

I was never aware that Congress had a movie theatre. Nor that they show pretty damned good Hollywood flicks, until last Tuesday when I saw a Capitol Hill screening of the upcoming film American Violet, written and produced by Bill Haney and presented by the Justice Roundtable Coalition’s Crack the Disparity campaign. The film is part of the campaign’s month long lobbying of Congress to address the Crack and powder Cocaine sentencing disparity. American Violet is based on the true story of Dee, a young mother in Texas facing 25 years in jail for distributing Crack based solely upon the testimony of one unreliable police informant. Her community is systematically terrorized by the District Attorney’s “drug task force” using military tactics to cull plea bargains in order to redeem those guilty verdicts for ‘burn money’ from the Federal Government’s war on drugs. When Dee is approached by the ACLU to be lead plaintiff for a case against the DA, she accepts and begins the fight against institutionalized victimization and racism in her community.

Outside of the theatre, Crack the Disparity set the tone by giving out chocolate bars, not to keep the crowd wired, but because, as it stands, 50 grams of Crack, the weight of an average chocolate bar, will get you a first offence mandatory minimum of 10 years in jail, while possession of a whopping 5,000 grams of powder Cocaine is required for the same sentence. This disparity has disproportionately affected poor and minority communities to the point where more than 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were black, although they comprise only about 25 percent of users. In fact, two thirds of all federal cases have been brought against the lowest level users, and only 8.4% against the biggest traffickers. Many people see this effect as only once removed from Jim Crow.

The racial connotation is so glaring that the US Sentencing Commission has stated that changing this rule would better reduce the sentencing gap between blacks and whites “than any other single policy change.” President Obama has proclaimed his support for trashing this misguided rule ever since his campaigning days and has listed it as an official position of his administration. Just recently, the administration joined a federal judge in urging Congress to end a racial disparity by equalizing prison sentences for dealing and using crack versus powdered cocaine.

Initially, the mandatory minimum statute for Crack possession was predicated upon what is now known to be ‘junk science’ claiming that Crack was more addictive and led to more violent crime. Now that the premise has been squashed, why are we still enforcing these policies? Namely because the right people didn’t want things to change. But a new wind is sweeping through and lifting up the voices that were once silent, such as Lanny Breuer, the new chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division who supports addressing the disparity and concedes that a “growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair.”

With this support, change is on the way.

Take Action Here: Tell Congress to End the Crack Cocaine Sentencing Disparity
For more information on America’s failing Drug War check out

This post was written by Leah Bush, a freelance writer, volunteer blogger for Make Social Change A Reality, and aspiring Guru whose past involvement includes the American Red Cross Hurricane Katrina Recovery Project and volunteerism in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Questions regarding this post may be forwarded to

May 6, 2009

Composting: Lessening our Impact on the Environment

I found the blog post shown below on "A Little Bit More", Idealist's blog series highlighting small steps we can take to make the world a better place. It contains a few links to resources that will help you learn more and get started on composting your food.

Also, Matthew Reid, one of our volunteer bloggers wrote a post about composting earlier this year. Check out Matt's post and don't forget to leave your comments. Happy composting!

A Little Bit More: Live Green, Compost!

In my little Washington, DC apartment I had a small kitchen composter that sat in the corner near the garbage. At the end of every day, instead of throwing my food scraps into the trash, I'd toss my leftovers into the composter, sprinkle in a small amount of bokashi, and close the lid.

"But doesn't that smell?"

Not at all, and as the food decomposed, the composted waste made great fertilizer for my house plants. I also noticed that I was taking out my garbage far less frequently than before I bought the composter.

The benefit of composting your food is that the waste decomposes aerobically, as opposed to anaerobic decomposition that takes place in landfills, releasing less methane into the atmosphere. From an MSNBC article: "Landfills are the largest source of methane emissions in the United States, accounting for 34 percent of such releases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Methane is the second-biggest man-made contributor to global warming behind carbon dioxide."

At our Buenos Aires office, we want to do our part to curb the office's methane output, so the staff is chipping in to buy a larger kitchen unit suitable for a small staff. With the leftover composted waste, maybe we'll grow a small herb garden or a few tomatoes.

From passive composting systems to automated approaches, composting is a great way to help lessen our impact on the environment. To learn more, check out this Wikipedia article on composting.

May 1, 2009

Educational Investment, Part II: Paving the Way with Early Education

In 1964, then-President Lyndon Johnson authorized a preschool program as part of his Economic Opportunity Act. That program has evolved into today’s Head Start, which provides not only preschool education to children from low-income families, but also health and social services.

Since 1965, the money invested in Head Start programs has been steadily increasing. President Obama allotted an additional $5 billion to the program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the hopes of reaching 150,000 more children. The idea is that when education and healthy living start early, children stay in school, stay employed, enrich society and save taxpayer dollars in reduced welfare later on in life.

However, in 1997 the Government Accounting Office published a report entitled Head Start: Research Provides Little Information on Impact of Current Program. In response, Congress mandated the Head Start Impact Study. Under the Department of Health and Human Services, the research project took four years to design, involved 5000 children, over 350 centers, and received an 80% response rate. The study included both children enrolled in Head Start as well as a control group of children who were eligible but not enrolled due to a lack of seat vacancies. According to the DHHS 2005 summary, Head Start has small to moderate statistically significant positive impacts in some development areas, while no impact on others.

Kathleen McCartney
, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, points out that while experimental research supports early education, President Obama will have to construct a solid policy for early education out of the current “patchwork quilt of programs” currently in existence.

Many states see the value in early education and have begun to implement universal preschool programs, including Oklahoma, Georgia, New Jersey, and Illinois. However, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, none of these states are yet able to point to higher test scores as a possible result of increased access to early education. Only time will tell.

My own personal logic leads me to believe that positive educational experiences at a young age must increase any individual’s likelihood of having enriching educational experiences in the future. However, I was also not enrolled in an early education program. What are you experiences, either professional or personal, with early education? Is the President on the right track?

This post was written by Allison Tritt, a former high school English teacher, volunteer for Oxfam Japan and blogger with Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. She blogs to foster global awareness and remind others that there is always a way to get involved. Please leave your comments or email Allison at with any questions.