Jorge Cabrera, a Bridgeport native, worked as a community organizer for Excel Bridgeport from April 2012 to January of 2015, when his position as community organizer was eliminated as the organization “realigned organizational priorities for improved impact and resource management.” Excel’s 990’s show declining income and increasing staff salaries in the years leading up to Cabrera’s termination.
Excel Bridgeport portrays itself as a community organization to create support for better education. According to its website: “Excel is building a grassroots movement so that all Bridgeport students receive the high quality education they deserve.”
On its 2010 Form 990 the story is slightly different: “Excel is an education reform organization established to accelerate Bridgeport’s progress toward improved student achievement.” Nowhere on the website or in any of its promotional or tax documents does Excel explain that the organization’s primary activity is the promotion of charter schools. After reading Mr. Cabrera’s op-ed in the CTPost, he agreed to an interview. Our Q&A follows. It has been edited for brevity.
Q: One of the questions a lot of people have been asking me is why are you speaking out now?
Three years ago when I started working for Excel Bridgeport I really believed in the mission. The mission was very noble. In my interview I really believed in what they were doing; they really sold me. Having graduated from BPS and being a first generation college graduate, I really understood how much that could change the trajectory of one’s life — it did mine, so on a personal level, I bought into it.
If we could figure out a way to get more kids better educated, to graduate high school and go on to college, I knew it would change this city a lot. Part of it was buying into that mission.
As I began to do the work — I had over 200 one-on-ones with a cross section of leaders in the city — parents, politicians, non-profit providers, activists and this other backstory began to emerge about what had happened before Excel came into existence and it wasn’t pretty. It consisted of what I called in my CT Post article deceitful and manipulative political moves that led to the takeover of the Bridgeport Board of Education and then the hiring of Paul Vallas as superintendent.
There was a backstory here, and perhaps it was a part of a larger . . . conspiracy that I wasn’t completely aware of, but I put my head down and worked, because I really believed in the mission. I tried hard inside the movement to create spaces for authentic conversation. I had limited success: there were people who talked to me about the importance of advocating for inter-district magnet schools or universal pre-schools, things that we know close the achievement gap . . .
Those are policies a lot of people agree on because the research is there.
Exactly. My argument to Excel was this is a win-win. You can have people who maybe disagree with . . . Excel’s position on charter schools but would agree if they took a position (which they never did) in support of funding for universal preschool and magnet schools. My approach was that the agenda needed to be broader and more multifaceted. I had a lot of patience — some people think too much.
At one point, Excel went through a succession of executive directors . . . 4 in less than 6 months . . . As this transition was occurring, I thought that was the perfect opportunity for the Board and people working there to see, “Wow, we’ve had a series of losses — the charter revision campaign we lost, the people we supported for Board of Education last year lost, Paul Vallas is gone.” A logical person would see it’s time to shift gears.
But they failed to articulate a broader strategy. They were having problems attracting dollars. I was reduced to part-time in late November last year . . . and completely laid off in late January. After that I needed to step back and see what I had been through, look at my meeting notes, and as I did that, I realized there were multiple signals I missed at the time and comments people made in meetings that provided insight into the underlying ideology and . . . a picture began to emerge. There were these unseen, unaccountable forces that were really setting the agenda and we were tasked with simply implementing it. They really weren’t interested in our views even though they said they were. They weren’t interested in having us authentically engage the community, even though they said they wanted that . . . As I began to see the ideology that undergirded the thought process of these folks, I realized what I had been in, and it was completely against my values and what I believe.
It’s a pretty big step from union organizer to charter school advocate.
That’s the tricky part. No one says “Hey Jorge, come on aboard, we’re anti-union, we want to bust the teacher’s union.” They don’t say that.
No. They couch it as “It’s for the kids.”
Yes, “Don’t you care about these children?” It’s a very subtle manipulation and I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but when you look back, you see it.
“Doctor” Michael Sharpe, former CEO and President of FUSE [the Family Urban School of Excellence, a charter management organization], was being held up as a model for “excellence” and “best practices” — favorite phrases of the reform movement — mere hours before the FBI raided the Jumoke/FUSE premises.
There are people I know in the community who said on the day that the news broke, parents left work and were picking up their kids crying. I don’t think the newspapers and media capture the human aspect of this story. Kids in that school built trusting relationships with “Dr.” Sharpe and with teachers and a lot of those kids have adults in their lives who have let them down over and over again, and are dealing with poverty and other social justice issues. Then here’s one more adult who is walking out on them. There’s a real human toll. That’s what is so upsetting.
But it’s not just Sharpe — it’s the people in government who were supposed to be providing oversight AND private entities like the Gates Foundation, which made it a condition of their grant to Hartford that money went to FUSE. They are a multi-billion dollar foundation — don’t they have a fleet of lawyers doing due diligence? And the negotiations for that grant were done out of the public eye and it was purposely structured so that the money flowed through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, so without public accountability.
There’s such an emphasis on urgency in the ed reform movement. They do a very good job of sounding alarm bells: “There is a crisis, kids aren’t learning, they are being permanently stuck in an underclass, we’ve got to move!”
What happens is that in this rush to “solve the problem” they leave due diligence and transparency behind. It creates a culture that leads to sloppiness and the abdication of common sense because everyone’s in a hurry.
All the work I was doing to build relationships in the community was abruptly halted to focus on the charter revision campaign. There was no real understanding of what that does when you begin to develop trust in the community, and then you abandon them to move on to something else.
Especially something that as divisive as taking away a democratically elected Board of Education.
It was also a lack of understanding of the social and economic context in which this happened. In Bridgeport, people have been let down a lot; whether it’s at the familial level, or at the political level — we’ve had politicians go to jail. If you’re able to build trust in a city like Bridgeport, it’s a monumental achievement because there is no culture of trust.
What shocked me was a lot of the folks at Excel and other places were portrayed to me and others as highly educated — Yale, Harvard, Princeton — in other words, “the Best and the Brightest” weren’t that bright.
They may have been intellectually bright, but perhaps they weren’t socially-emotionally bright?
Good point. So there was always this shifting: “We’ll just move on to the next person.”
It was a steady stream of foolish tactical mistakes — you’re leaving a human being behind, someone that you began to build trust with, and because they didn’t move fast enough or had a life event, you’re creating an enemy.
There’s an attitude of you are either with us or against us . . . but the people of Bridgeport have spoken. They deserve the credit for having organized and pushed back against the radical privatization ideology.
At times, it felt like Excel wanted to operate as a community organization . . . be authentic, be broad based, but at the same time play this political game with the political establishment and then what they don’t realize is that then they get pushed into campaigns to fulfill a political agenda — and as a 501C3 we can’t do that. The only reason we were able to get so involved in the charter revision campaign is because there’s an exception in the IRS code for charter questions, when it’s not specifically a candidate. So Excel spent like $99,000 on that campaign. But that was it, you can’t get involved in politics.
But we would get weird things like: During the Board of Education race, “can you go knock on doors and make phone calls for these candidates.” And I said, “No I can’t, we’re a 501c3” . . . “Oh I understand that . . . but what about after hours? Or can you take a sick day and go work on it?” And I’d say, “But I’m not sick . . . and what happens when I do get sick?” And when I asked questions like, that there was silence.
So was that your bosses asking you to do that?
It was very subtle. It would be the Executive Director and one or two people on staff coming by and saying “Oh, just to let you know, after work at 5 p.m. we’re going down to campaign headquarters and working for three hours and we’re taking Election Day off so we can we can work the polls. You should think about doing that.” So it wasn’t a direct order, but the message was clear.
In other words, if you don’t do this “volunteering,” you aren’t a good employee.
Right, but I stood my ground, which they didn’t like. I remember one time we got a phone call from an unknown person in the Mayor’s office, saying that they wanted me to mobilize parents to come to a city council meeting to support the Mayor not funding the Minimum Budget Requirement for the schools. He violated it this past year but he cut a deal with the Governor to count in-kind services as part of the funding. We got a phone call saying we had to mobilize parents because he was going to get attacked. At that point I’d had it and I said, “Let me get this straight: You want me to mobilize parents to support the Mayor not funding the public schools?” SILENCE. It was unbelievable. I kept wondering, who is calling the shots here?
There’s a weird emphasis on message over policy. They say, “The masses aren’t responding the way we want them to. It must be our message. Let’s hire some flashy New York City consultant firm to come in.” That’s what they did at Excel. These guys charge a lot of money. I could not help but wonder how much more useful the money could have been used.
Instead of actually listening to their alleged constituencies.
I told them, you have to spend time on the ground. You have to actually listen. But that was never the intent. The intent was to convince. On more than one occasion my boss would say: “Use language that will convince the parents.” And I would think “That’s not organizing — that’s marketing.” I’m not in the marketing field. I’m not a salesperson. I’m hired to explain to you what the currents in the community are, where I think the average person is in terms of understanding the system, understanding education. Then, organize the community around issues they believe will reform the school system. I would talk to parents in Bridgeport, not everywhere, who are under incredible stress. We have a lot of single moms raising children on their own, add poverty to the mix, add socio-emotional problems to the mix, we have a very high rate of English language learners in Bridgeport, we have an incredibly high rate of kids with Asperger’s and on the autistic spectrum in Bridgeport. . .
And they aren’t getting the Special Education resources.
Under Vallas, the state cited Bridgeport for Special Ed violations . . . that was a perfect opportunity to organize parents around an issue that impacts thousands and generate some much-needed social capital and credibility . . . but they missed it.
The atmosphere in the reform community vacillated between arrogant dismissiveness and callous indifference. You go to visit any Achievement First school and there are banners everywhere that say “No excuses.” They hammer that into the kids.
There’s a weird culture that doesn’t take into consideration the breadth of human experience. It doesn’t respect humanity, it doesn’t have any compassion for what children go through in high poverty, high crime neighborhoods. It treats them like inanimate objects. They are human beings.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.