Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dead End In Norvelt

The project of getting our kids prepared for a university of their choice involves reading time together. The first book completed in this endeavor this summer was E.B. White’s 1952 classic, Charlotte’s Web. Immediately thereafter, we started Jack Gantos’s 2012 Newbery Award winning Dead End In Norvelt. The story is situated in the Cold War era of the 1950s and makes frequent reference to the New Deal. In fact, the name of the Midwestern town of Norvelt is a derivation of Eleanor Roosevelt who promoted the creation of affordable housing for the working class. Miss Volker, a nurse and devotee of Roosevelt, promised to write an obituary for each of the original residents before leaving.

Gantos embeds historical commentary related not only to the New Deal and the McCarthy Era but also the New Immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and World War II, at home and abroad. In reading the story to my traviesos (mischievous children), I restrained myself from explaining the historical landscape detailed by the author in order not to interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Like White’s Charlotte’s Web, Gantos adroitly complements the personalities of the characters to amplify the forces at work. For example, Jack Gantos, who is also the name of the main character, is a nosebleed prone adolescent in search of purpose, and comes to appreciate the power of the written word, history, and ideas. He learn this during his assignment to assist the valetudinarian Miss Volker stricken with arthritis and unable to write the obituaries accompanied by “this day in history” analects.

Jack’s father, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific theater, views the world through a Manichean lens of the Cold War. Dad prepares a bomb shelter for his family to survive an inevitable nuclear Armageddon. He also refers to Miss Volker as a Commie for her devotion to the New Deal. Public employees are also Commies in his eyes. In many ways, Jack’s father is a Babbitt of the variety within the writings of Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and H.L. Mencken.

The dying town of Norvelt is also a largely white community. White residents denied the Jeffersonian, middle-class dream of homeownership to black migrants. It was only when the Roosevelts were moved by the appeal of one black family that an accommodation was made. Mrs. White, the wife and mother of the only black family in town, advanced the naming of the town founded during the Great Depression in tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt.

In finishing the book, Jack Gantos validated my belief that the line between fact and fiction can be artificial. Many places like Norvelt exist that are, in the words of Gantos, off-kilter “where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.”

Con Safos

Saturday, August 11, 2012

To Swim or Not To Swim

To graduate from Marine Corps Recruit Training, prospective Marines must pass a swim/survival test. In the summer of 1985, I failed it twice before qualifying. The second time my lungs filled with water and flowed out of my mouth as I lay prostrate on the side of the pool deck unassisted. As I coughed up the remaining liquid from the pit of my stomach, the swim instructor barked that I had fifteen minutes to get back in the water. The third try was the charm. I passed. But as I looked over to the far side of the pool, I saw a distinct class for recruits who could not pass after the third try. The overwhelming majority of them were Chicano/Latinos and African Americans. In a New York Times opinion essay, Martha Southgate provides an informative perspective as to the reasons why high proportions of people in poverty and of color, especially African Americans, tragically don’t know how to swim.

Con Safos

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Oxnard College Past and Present

For my study of the Chicano Movement in Ventura County, I learned that before Oxnard College’s opening in 1975, Vietnam veterans and newly minted high school graduates from the Oxnard Plain rode buses to Moorpark College because the largest city in Ventura County did not have a community college.

After their transfer to and graduation from San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University at Northridge), the University of California at Santa Barbara, or other universities, they entered careers as educators, entrepreneurs, public servants, and healthcare and law enforcement professionals.

The spirit of the Chicano Movement also inspired the filing of the Soria, et. al. v. Oxnard School District Board of Trustees case in which federal Judge Harry Pregerson issued a 1971 summary judgment that ordered the district to develop a plan of desegregation.

An appeal of Judge Pregerson’s ruling uncovered additional evidence that proved that since the early twentieth century the school district obsessed over the creation of policies to segregate students of Mexican origin.

The remedy mandated busing. The school board and parents bitterly resisted the order. Many white parents moved their families out of Oxnard to avoid having their children bussed to schools in the barrio community of La Colonia. Oxnard College could have benefited from the political clout that left with them.

The development of Oxnard College was further stunted by the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, the property tax initiative that shrunk the coffers of public institutions.

As a result of Proposition 13 and our recent great recession, the vision of the California Master Plan of Higher Education has faded to near oblivion. Students are again traversing roads to attend community colleges with remnant academic and vocational programs in their pursuit of a middle class life.

Even before Proposition 13, Oxnard College’s growth as a startup depended on the decisions of a district board that found itself in the position of having to divide funds three ways. Understandably, the presidents of Moorpark and Ventura College advocated strongly on behalf of their campuses.

After graduating from Oxnard High School in 1983 I carpooled to Moorpark College since Oxnard College did not have a wrestling program. In fact, many Oxnard Union High School District graduates also traveled to Moorpark or Ventura due to Oxnard College not enjoying a comprehensive athletics program.

This disadvantaged Oxnard College’s development and benefited the other two campuses as funding is based on the number of Full Time Equivalent Students (FTES) registered for 12 or more units of coursework.

Along with a tacit anti-Mexican sentiment in the county, the above explains why Oxnard College’s support services, academic programs, and the aesthetics of its facilities were inferior to the campuses of Moorpark and Ventura.

Until the passage of Measure S in 2002, some five buildings, surrounded by desolate fields, defined Oxnard College. Its curb appeal alone was enough to turn away students.

When the board deliberated on the apportionment of some $356 million from the Measure S bond, the initial plan was to allocate Oxnard College only $60 million. The rationale was the institution’s smaller student population. Consequently, it deserved a lesser cut.

Hence, the conundrum: a smaller campus with the highest proportion of students of African, Filipino, and Mexican origins deserved disparate support, precluding the expansion of course offerings that translated to students of the Oxnard Plain commuting to Moorpark and Ventura.

When Area 5 Ventura County Community College District Trustee Arturo Hernandez demanded that Measure S funds be allotted equitably the board reconsidered its original distribution.

This is the history that backdrops the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges reports.

In resisting the further evisceration of programs, Trustee Hernandez has been castigated by the commission for his advocacy on behalf of all students, including those at Oxnard College. This is ironic. The ACCJC’s own Accreditation Standards charges trustees with the duty to ensure that the district provides for the “fair distribution of resources that are adequate to support the effective operations of the colleges.”

But when Trustee Hernandez performed his due diligence, posed questions of equity for the three colleges, he was rebuked by not only the accrediting body but also the VCCCD’s outgoing chancellor, James Meznek, in a crafty letter leaked from his office, and a patronizing STAR editorial. Trustee Hernandez, the most senior member of the board, was ordered to stand down.

I appreciate Trustee Hernandez’s concern for district-wide equity. He proved this to me in 2009 when he listened to Moorpark College alumni who unsuccessfully attempted to save the district’s remaining wrestling program.

Despite the characterization of the issues by the STAR, one member of the board does not determine the accreditation of a college district. The STAR must educate itself on the realities of accreditation and investigate the hearsay allegations against Trustee Hernandez.

Con Safos

PS: A version of this essay was run in the Ventura County Star on August 12, 2012