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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bad fit

‘It’s not a solution’: How a Harlem co-location proposal is highlighting disparities between two schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Valencia Moore, PTA president at P.S. 36, called for more resources at the school.

A plan to co-locate two schools in Harlem is drawing intense opposition from residents who say the city Department of Education has long neglected the host school, P.S. 36.

The city wants to temporarily move some students from Teachers College Community School into P.S. 36, which overlooks Morningside Park. But at a community hearing Wednesday, parents blasted the proposal and accused the department of letting P.S. 36 languish until its space became needed by a wealthier, whiter school community.

Valencia Moore, PTA president of P.S. 36, listed all the repairs and resources she says are needed at her school: new electrical wiring, stronger Wi-Fi, replacement desks and new bookshelves.

“Some of our teachers are using milk crates to store their books,” she said. “We’re short-staffed now, where we have parents coming in and volunteering.”

She added that parents have asked the city for years to make repairs to the school’s playground. City officials on Wednesday said they are planning to make the fixes and promised to look into another recurring request — to renovate bathrooms. For parents, the city’s response only exacerbated a sense of inequity many feel.

“Now, all of a sudden you can find money to fix the playground — because you’re bringing a wealthier school,” said Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of the local Community Education Council. “You have kids bullying other groups of kids because their school looks better. That’s going on in Harlem… We deserve better.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of Community Education Council District 5 in Harlem.

TCCS is a diverse school where fewer than half of the students are low-income. Meanwhile, most of the students at P.S. 36 are black or Hispanic, and almost 90 percent are poor. To meet their students’ needs, P.S. 36 has partnerships with eight community organizations, which offer health screenings, counseling and mental health services within the building.

The co-location proposal stems from a battle to create a middle school for TCCS — something the community has pushed for. Opened in 2011 through a partnership between the city and Columbia University, the school is poised to admit its first sixth-grade class in the upcoming school year.

The problem is there’s no room for the extra grades at the current TCCS campus on Morningside Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets. So city officials have proposed moving TCCS’s younger students — pre-K through second grade — into the P.S. 36 building. The move is supposed to be temporary until the Department of Education can find a permanent home for TCCS.

Parents at TCCS have concerns of their own.

Laura Blake has a daughter at TCCS. She said parents are skeptical the co-location would work, and worry that staff and resources will be stretched thin across two campuses.

“It’s not a solution,” she said.

She echoed concerns from P.S. 36 parents that there simply isn’t enough room for more students — despite assurances to the contrary from city officials.

Moore, the P.S. 36 PTA president, worried the co-location would impede her school’s ability to continue to host community partners and serve its sizeable population — 31 percent — of students with special needs.

“We’re the little people,” she said. “We shouldn’t be bombarded by people who have money.”

According to the co-location proposal, only 64 percent of P.S. 36 is currently being used and students will still be able to receive the special education services they’re entitled to.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education explained why the move was necessary. “As demand for TCCS grows among families, we’re committed to providing its students and staff with the space and resources they need to continue thriving,” Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “This temporary re-siting will help ensure that the school can continue to grow enrollment and expand the grades it serves, as we work diligently to find a permanent home that meets the needs of the entire TCCS community.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body, is scheduled to vote on the proposal at their regular meeting on Feb. 28.

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.