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Steve Nelson

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To Bill Gates: I Don't Need Your Money

Posted: 02/28/2012 5:17 pm

I suppose the words "To Bill Gates: I Don't Need Your Money" haven't been written very often.

But, truth be told, Mr. Gates, I don't need your money. The Calhoun School, which I have led for 14 years, enjoys the good fortune that befalls many private schools in America, especially in Manhattan. There are thousands of families willing and able to pay for private school. Most families give generously to the school in addition to tuition.

Don't get me wrong. I deeply respect that you and your wife care about the community and the world. I wish all folks who have the talent and good luck that you've enjoyed would share their wealth with a very, very troubled world, as you are doing.

I enthusiastically applaud your recent New York Times op-ed piece that argued against public humiliation of teachers, but I worry that your foundation's generosity is nonetheless helping to fuel a destructive era in school "reform." The insidious evisceration of education through for-profit charters, voucher programs, anti-union rhetoric and meaningless uses of technology is very troubling. I don't think you intend this, but I wonder what will be left of education when we're done privatizing, measuring, scaling, "choosing" schools and digitalizing what should be real experiences.

But if you want to really help, here's one small way: Send a few hundred thousand dollars to Freebrook Academy in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

You and many other reformers like to support entrepreneurship. It doesn't get more entrepreneurial than Freebrook. A remarkable, persistent, modest, intelligent woman called Monique Scott decided that children in her less-than-affluent community deserved an education just as good as the one received by the children in my privileged Upper Westside neighborhood. She's not connected to any influential politicians who want to pose at photo opportunities. She's not connected to your foundation, or the Broad Foundation, or the Walton family. She's just a tireless, committed young woman who doesn't want to see children churned through meaningless (and sometimes mean-spirited) "rigor," discipline, test preparation and regimentation.

Monique wants for children what you and other influential citizens claim to want. She wants children to be happy, curious, imaginative and creative. She wants young children who have not inherited privilege to have the same rich opportunities wealthy children have.

You've had a wonderful life, I think, although I'm sure you've had your problems. I love that you were able to choose what you wanted to do while a student at Lakeside, getting excused from regular classes to pursue your passion. How many students at so-called "rigorous" charter schools ever have that chance? How many students in places like Bed-Stuy will ever get any choice about what to do in school, given the suffocating monotony of current educational practice?

I noted (ok, it was Wikipedia, so I'm not sure it's true) that your mug shot was taken in Albuquerque, NM in 1977 after a traffic violation. I'm sure you know what happens to black or hispanic boys in Bed-Stuy when they are stopped for a traffic violation, even if the violation is imaginary. You got into Harvard and then dropped out because opportunity was knocking hard and loud. I'm sure you know how few girls and boys in Bed-Stuy will have a shot at Harvard. If they drop out they are more likely to experience hard knocks than to hear opportunity knocking.

I've spent many years studying educational theory and practice, child development, and neurobiology. Nearly every thoughtful educator, psychologist and neurobiologist I know believes that current educational practices, including in many of the schools you support, are misguided. By vivid contrast, Freebrook Academy offers an exceptional program, grounded in the best educational practices and, perhaps most importantly, committed to equity, justice and opportunity for all children. I've visited charter schools that receive enormous political and philanthropic support. Freebrook Academy's mission and curriculum stand head and shoulders above them. I would not send my children to any of New York's most celebrated charter schools if they paid me. I would send my children to Freebrook in a heartbeat. (It's a little late, of course, as my children are 38 and 41.)

I doubt you or your agents will ever see this piece, but I can hope. I'm not suggesting that you stop spending tens of millions of dollars trying to affect education at a large scale. Whether I think you're heading in the right direction or not, at least you're trying to do something. But I know this: One, small, remarkable school in Bed-Stuy is trying to do something too and I know they're headed in the right direction. If one intent of your generosity is to encourage models of education that can change the world, Freebrook deserves your support.

Years ago my wife, children and I had an animated discussion (ok, an argument) about how to bring about social change. My wife and children argued for the power of small acts of beauty, justice and kindness. I argued for raging winds of change, political movements, and revolutions. We finally agreed. We were both right. You can't have one without the other. A good snowstorm is merely the aggregate force of individual, elegant crystals, each one unique and unspeakably beautiful.

So keep storming with your considerable resources, but perhaps you can help one beautiful, small school too? Freebrook is living from day to day, surviving on the generosity of neighbors who have little to spare. I don't mean to be cavalier about your wealth, but several hundred thousand dollars in your world is a modest sum. Several hundred thousand dollars can change the future for Freebrook.

I know that most of your philanthropy, by necessity, deals with large systems and scalable solutions. But wouldn't it feel good to know that you made one modest gift that changed the world for one amazing woman, one remarkable school and the children in a challenging Brooklyn neighborhood?

Check out their website: http://www.freebrook.org

I'd be happy to take you or your representative for a visit. I promise -- no photo ops, no hoopla. They don't want that. Or you could just write a check and send it to Monique. She just wants to love children and treat them with dignity and respect. I think you want that too.

 

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