First Person

How to Fix a Trailer in 17 Easy Steps

If you work for the NYC Department of Education, getting small things done can often be a large task. But I’ve been doing it since its inception, and I have some advice for those who are bewildered, or simply discouraged. Even if you’ve been exiled to the most filthy, decrepit, and crumbling trailer in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, you can do it. Just follow these simple steps.

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A trailer at Francis Lewis High School. By Arthur Goldstein

First, try all the normal channels. Go to the custodian and explain how cold, how wet, how malodorous and revolting the trailer is. When that fails, go to administration. Fill out the forms, make the requests, and do whatever official policy dictates. Go in every now and then to remind them when nothing gets done. Demand luxury items, like soap.

Repeat every year, as necessary.

Don’t give up when you discover bar soap instead of liquid soap, even if it grows a curious oozing black crust the kids refuse to touch. Just pick it up with a piece of paper and interrupt a Very Important Meeting to show the assistant principal. The soap bars will soon disappear. While no new soap will replace it, you can make yourself feel important by boasting to the kids about how you got rid of those grungy soap bars.

After the fifth year or so, you may find your trailer’s desk filled with fast-food garbage.  Throw it out yourself. If you wait, you’ll only learn the hard way that no one else will. Stop dumping the trash when someone finally pours soft drinks into the drawers, as your hands will get sticky and there’s no running water in the trailer bathroom.

The day you find the desk covered with ice cream, with paper plates stuck to it, it’s time to throw in the towel. At this point, you can’t leave anything inside the desk, and you can’t leave anything on top of it either. Have someone help you carry it outside. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the custodians locate and remove it. When they ask whether you want a replacement, say yes, no, or whatever comes to mind. You won’t get one anyway.

Next, run for UFT chapter leader. This can hasten the negotiating process. While assistant principals throw teachers out of their offices within a minute or two, they tend to wait five, sometimes even 10 minutes before evicting the chapter leader. Of course, your opponents will viciously battle you for those extra minutes, but don’t give up. In my experience, the best way to win is to get the Daily News to call your home and ask you to write a column opposing mayoral control. When it comes out, make copies, drop them in staff mailboxes, and many of your colleagues will vote for you.

After you win, unfortunately, the trailer will look the same. Don’t hesitate to take further action. First, call Sandra Dunn-Yules from the UFT to do a health and safety inspection. Spend hours exploring the entire school, and then show her the trailers. “I’ve seen worse,” she may say, even as she agrees they are abysmal. When she returns with people carrying fancy-looking equipment, be sure to express gratitude rather than disappointment they aren’t wearing Hazmat suits.

The next thing you have to do is get UFT Vice President Leo Casey to visit your school. Show him the overcrowding, and the trailers. Have him set up a meeting with Elizabeth Sciabarra, the director of the Department of Education’s office of enrollment. Whatever you do, don’t forget to have him tell you to file a grievance. Make sure he emails you to specify the grievance be under Article 10, E, 1 of the UFT Contract — that the DOE is failing to meet its responsibility “to provide the appropriate recognized standards of workplace sanitation, cleanliness, light, and noise control, adequate heating and ventilation.”

That’s pretty much it. Your trailer should be fixed by the following day. The faucets will be repaired, the heat and AC will work (at least for a while), the floors will be cleaned (as best they can), and you’ll have more frequent toilet paper, paper towels, and filled soap dispensers. In a few days, you’ll even get a new used desk.

It takes a little doing, but it’s worth it. Once you’ve done this, you can focus on how to get a real classroom (I’ll submit a follow-up just as soon as I work out the details).

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.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.