First Person

My students deal with poverty, deportation and military moves. Here’s how I make each newcomer feel welcome.

PHOTO: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

In my four years of teaching, there has always been at least one student in my classroom dealing with the deportation of a parent or a family member.

Likewise, I have consistently taught students who struggle with homelessness. My students have told me they slept in their car the night before, they had moved into an aunt’s garage, or they were staying with another family until they could find a place of their own.

For more than 2 million American students, their living situation is dictated by another powerful force: the U.S. military. If a parent or caregiver is on active duty, typically there is a move every two to three years.

Whether a student is connected to the military or not, the students in our classrooms who change schools often need additional attention. These moves have a sizable impact on their learning. A 1996 study that analyzed students in Chicago Public Schools published by David Kerbow found that students who were highly mobile could be as much as four months behind their schoolmates by fourth grade. By sixth grade, these highly mobile students could be as much as a full year behind academically.

However, it is possible to limit the impact of changing schools. A different assessment of research published in 2008 shows that having social support from family and peers makes a big difference. More specific studies that examined the impact of the transition to middle school or high school indicate that support from peers and teachers positively influences the academic and social adjustment of adolescent students to a new environment.

In other words, we teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of students who are mobile. We can support our students with strategies that help them to feel welcomed and cared about.

A few months into my first year of teaching, our school secretary stopped me on the way into school. She told me a new student, Mirrana, would join our class that day. She also told me this new student used a wheelchair.

This was the first time I had ever been assigned a new student. I frantically ran up to my room to arrange the tables in my classroom so Mirrana could access our room. I had to track down our custodian to see if he could raise a table so her wheelchair could fit underneath it. All of a sudden, the bell rang. Nothing was ready and I was flustered.

Looking back, I think of how Mirrana must have felt as she entered my classroom. I was concerned about the logistics of adding a new student, but she was concerned about feeling welcome. As the year went on, I was able to build a meaningful relationship with her, but I’m sure the transition could have gone more smoothly.

Ever since then, I have made it a point to have the essentials ready for a new student in a welcome package.

It does not take much extra time or effort because I do this as I am setting up my classroom at the beginning of the year. As I prepare for the first day of school, I set aside extra materials for potential new students.

I fill five cardboard magazine boxes; each contains a homework folder, writing notebook, and name plate for the desk. I also include copies of welcome letters from back-to-school nights and important handouts. For older students, a teacher might include a class syllabus, a binder, and contact information. As a school, we are also able to give each student who enters in the middle of the year a pencil bag with basic school supplies such as pencils, markers, and glue sticks donated from Yoobi, a philanthropy-focused school supply company. It is a very practical and tangible way to make new students feel welcome and cared about.

This idea could even be expanded to include the whole family. Welcome Kits can be adapted to meet the needs of local communities. Imagine giving a new family a backpack full of books or a packet of coupons to local restaurants. One school might include winter hats and gloves. Another might include coins for a local Laundromat, or subway cards. Having the school community give thought to the needs of students who will inevitably enter their school in the middle of the year helps create a welcoming culture.

Welcome Kits have helped me do just that. Since I have already put thought into how I am going to welcome a new student, even when I am given no warning, these pre-made Welcome Kits make students feel they already have a place in our community. I feel prepared to welcome a student at any time.

As teachers, we can’t always control when and why a student transitions to or from our school, but we can focus on what we do control: how we handle each situation. By having strategies ready, we can make students feel welcome and included when they arrive as well as valued and missed if they must leave.

Adapted excerpt from I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids” by Kyle Schwartz. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.