First Person

On week one after a tense summer, don’t be afraid to tell students: ‘We want to know you’

Denver Post

As school resumes, ninth graders are walking into 2,000-student high schools and and feeling uneasy, perhaps scared.

Some might recognize a small share of their classmates from middle school. But many won’t know a single teacher, and not one adult will know them, either.

They will wonder: Are the men and women in this building on their side? Is any adult there happy to see them?

In those first days, English teachers will have their own questions about their students’ writing skills and their students’ lives. As a longtime English teacher in Parker, my solution was to embrace the simple journal entry.

I would ask them to tell me about a fun, scary or memorable experience from this past summer. Write about a visit to relatives, a grandparent’s illness, your new apartment or home. Explain what did or did not go well in eighth grade and your questions about whether you’re ready to succeed.

The topics might seem fluffy to some. Aren’t those elementary-school topics? No mention of Common Core’s emphasis on “citing evidence to support your point of view”?

Nope. We have 35 other weeks to help our students develop their ability to narrate, inform, persuade. Week one, we need to get to know our students.

This is more important than it might seem for a couple of reasons. One, the 2015 Student Gallup Poll told us, once again, that by ninth grade students increasingly feel disengaged. Responses to the statement “The adults at my school care about me” decline steadily after fifth grade.

To keep our students engaged in this critical academic work, our 13- and 14-year old freshmen need evidence, this first week, that someone in this forbidding complex wants to know who they are. When they don’t get it, the results are clear.

Second, we cannot ignore what young people have witnessed this summer across our country. For those of us who teach or tutor in Denver, Aurora, or the Adams 14 districts, all of which have large numbers of students of color, questions about race and policing are even more relevant.

In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where protests flared in recent months, a recent story in Education Week profiled principals who are developing “plans to help teachers respond to students and their needs when they return to school,” including “efforts to provide students who may want to write or speak about race and policing as part of school assignments.”

“May” want? You better believe it. Let’s welcome this, and give our ninth graders a chance to try to put what they are thinking into words.

In my final years as a teacher, that first week of school, I asked my students to produce three journal entries. No magic there. But perhaps the big high school becomes less scary when one adult says, I care. I’d like to know who you are and what’s on your mind. Tell me.

Here are some writing assignment ideas …

I. Choose one of the options below, and focus only on that one activity or day or moment.

1. Favorite activity
2. Best memory
3. Most embarrassing moment/experience
4. Most difficult or most thrilling moment/experience, and why
5. Activity, experience or accomplishment from this summer of which I am most proud

II. Write about the adjustment to ninth grade. Some of the topics you might examine include:

1.) What is new? What is different? How much is the same? What are your first impressions? What will be different in the workload? What are you most excited about? What are you most worried about?
2.) Write about one or two of your main academic goals for the rest of the school year. It can help to set some goals for the next two or three months. What changes or improvement do you hope to see, and why?

III. Write a response to one of these topics.

Is there a family member you feel very close to? What makes you feel that way?
Do you or your family have a pet or pets? How do you feel about him/her/them?
If you have a friend with whom you can talk about anything, write about him or her.
What would you like to do after high school? After college?
What might keep you from achieving your potential?
What is your greatest fear? – or – What puts a smile on your face?

Peter Huidekoper Jr. taught for 18 years. He writes an education newsletter and is the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program.

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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.

A better way

Parents and city officials hope to tackle inequity in gifted education, specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

District 9 in the Bronx is home to almost 18,000 elementary school students. Only about 55 of them were enrolled in gifted and talented programs last year.

A new task force launched by the Brooklyn and Bronx borough presidents wants to dig into why that is — and what should be done about it.

New York City’s gifted programs are starkly segregated by race and class. A majority of city students are black or Hispanic. But those students make up only 27 percent of gifted enrollment. And while 77 percent of students citywide are poor, the poverty rate in gifted programs is about 43 percent.

With limited access to gifted programs, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. said it’s no wonder minority students are also woefully underrepresented in the city’s elite specialized high schools — another issue the task force will address.

The latest round of acceptance data for specialized high schools, released last week, shows that the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to those schools hasn’t budged past 10 percent.

“If they’re not in gifted and talented, then they’re not prepared to pass the exams that place you in specialized high schools,” Diaz said.

Admission to specialized high schools hinges on the results of a single exam — as does entry into gifted programs starting in kindergarten.

The city has tried to boost diversity in both areas, offering test prep for the specialized high school exam, and administering the test during the school day at a handful of middle schools in underrepresented communities. The department also recently opened new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without any: Districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx, and Districts 16 and 23 in Brooklyn.

But Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called the department’s diversity moves “a new coat of paint” that fails to address bigger problems.

“We have to dig deeper,” he said. “Lack of diversity is not going to produce the leaders we want.”

The borough presidents hope the task force will come up with recommendations beyond traditional solutions like offering test prep, and suggest ways to address systemic issues, such as offering gifted testing to all students in universal pre-K programs and helping parents better prepare their children for success in school.

Adams also said the department needs to figure out how to make sure all parents have access to information on how to enroll in the sought-after programs, especially in communities with large immigrant populations or where parents don’t have experience dealing with big bureaucracies like the Department of Education.

“They think, ‘Well this information is out there. Everyone has access to it,’” he said. “That is not true. Government is frightening for those who aren’t used accessing it.”

Not everyone is convinced gifted and talented programs will help address inequity. In an editorial in Quartz last year, researchers Halley Potter and Allison Roda, who have both studied equity issues in New York City schools, said the solution will require “radically reimagining gifted education, and eliminating separate G&T programs altogether.”

“New York City’s current approach to gifted education is founded on separation,” they wrote.

Yet despite the lingering disparities, Diaz said all children deserve access to programs like gifted and talented.

“Some of them are [English Language Learners], some of them have special needs. But some of them need to be challenged intellectually,” he said. “We need to do the best we can for every single one of our students.”

The first task force meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on March 20 at Bronx High School of Science, located at 75 West 205th St. The Brooklyn meeting has been rescheduled due to snow, and will be held at 6 p.m. on March 28 at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, located at 1368 Fulton Street.