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Thompson: "A Place for Us"?

After NPR's Wade Goodwyn’s moving report, One Night Only, about two dozen homeless singers performing at the Dallas City Performance Hall, I wiped tears from my eyes and made a resolution. This wonderful event must be celebrated, but I vowed to not use it as ammunition in our edu-political civil war.

The orchestra began to play "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," and the homeless singers were "still a bit wobbly" as they joined in. After all, only about five of them were regular members of the chorus.  Choral director Jonathan Palant had worked with 57 different choir singers over the last three months.

Then, Goodwyn reported, "Suddenly, a world-famous opera singer appears on the stage, seemingly out of nowhere. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade walks into the middle of the Dallas Street Choir and puts her arms around two of the singers."

Together, they sing, There's a place for us. Somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air wait for us somewhere.

Goodwyn noticed "a lot of surreptitious wiping of eyes.” As a hundred other trained voices joined in, the homeless singers grew far more confident and melodious. "It was an evening they said they'd remember the rest of their lives."

But, Goodwyn's final words were nearly as striking in their pessimism, "For a night, two dozen of Dallas's homeless were lifted from the city's cold streets and sidewalks to bask in the warm glow of spotlights. For the usual hostility and indifference to their fate, they were traded love, respect and goodwill - one performance only."

Then, I read Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue post on the Gates Foundation’s new effort to address complex and interrelated housing problems.

Cody had previously reached out to the foundation, trying to explain how school improvement required a comprehensive approach to poverty, housing, and other issues. But, back then, the Gates Foundation was still committed to fighting the stress of poverty by imposing the stress of high-stakes testing on schools. Now, however, Cody gave reason for cautious optimism that the new Gates CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, might be open to a team effort to improve schools.

I followed a link to Desmond-Hellman’s recent post, “Three Must-Haves for Every Child;” the first is “a stable place to call home.” She further acknowledges that “the philanthropic and policy communities had tended to look at education, housing and social services as distinct categories, separate from one another.”

Desmon-Hellmon asked a formerly homeless mom what had helped her the most, and she didn’t cite a single program or policy. “What she said was, ‘We needed to be treated with respect, and that’s what made me want to jump and do something.’” 

We teachers protest the disrespect bestowed on us, and our denial of a place at the table before non-educators at the Gates Foundation and other venture philanthropies instituted their version of top-down reform. But, our complaints can’t compare with the needs of so many of our students and their families as they seek a place of their own. 

Perhaps the beautiful evening described by Wade Goodwyn doesn’t have to be a one-night expression of goodwill. Perhaps we teachers and the Gates Foundation can start over, and work towards full-service community schools that would provide a place of dignity and trusting, loving relationships.-JT(@drjohnthompson)


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