First Person

Closing Schools: A Call for Independent Review

To write that I am a fan of closing failing schools is to fall into the same bombastic trap now enmeshing the Bloomberg administration. Before the Mayor took office, I wrote about the need to take forceful action against these educational mediocrities. But the wholesale closing and opening of schools that the Mayor has embarked upon is not the answer.

Replacing schools does not necessarily improve education. In the Mayor’s hands, it has become a shell game that defers instructional problems until they reappear elsewhere, to be met again with a similar reaction. Meanwhile, the often lengthy period of the schools’ decline — until so drastically and unconstructively arrested — has harmed thousands of students.

Until now, the Mayor’s strategy has been largely immune to public opposition. The Department of Education announced its hit list with little or no prior warning, the better to keep critics at bay. The new school governance statute, however, has created a process for notice and hearings that — while imperfect — will subject this year’s target list to formal scrutiny followed by likely approval by the mayor-controlled Panel for Educational Policy. Students, parents, teachers, and their supporters are organizing to reverse the DOE decree.

This is a public scenario that DOE operatives — probably with the best of technocratic intentions — wanted to avoid. School-based opposition was identified as the Achilles’ heel of reform after the failure of Mayor Giuliani’s initiative to have Edison Schools take over a number of failed schools. Families at the schools voted against the move.

But Bloomberg still seems committed to playing a power game despite the new legal landscape and a public increasingly fed-up with his paternalistic mien. His is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory, with his PEP majority ready to work his will but giving rise to increasingly mobilized school communities that will oppose even justified closings.

This warfare could be avoided if the Mayor took a different, more conciliatory tack. What is needed — both legally and instructionally — is to articulate a clear set of standards for determining school closures, with thorough review of actions taken to avoid the disruption attendant to this last resort and the possible impact of closure on other schools.

The Mayor has created a sense that these closures are less than inevitable but, rather, part of a considered strategy to free up space in certain schools for charters and preferred small schools. Rationales for school closure are a moving target. Some are cited for low graduation rates — though other schools, not slated for elimination, are worse. Or the emphasis shifts to enrollment, or application rates, or whatever other metric might appear deficient either currently or over time. The data seem a pretext for closure and, like so many dominoes, set up a new round of schools predetermined for failure.

These actions give the appearance of illegal caprice: the inconsistent application of otherwise rational criteria so that the action is ultimately unpredictable and subject to whim. If indeed there is a hidden, consistent rationale for these decisions, then it is the Mayor’s obligation to reveal it. Keeping the public off-balance through secrecy is deplorable. This is a typical private-sector strategy based on the competitive edge of proprietary trade secrets. The Mayor’s people still haven’t learned that such tactics are inappropriate in a democracy where an informed public is a paramount, legally-enforceable value.

The more objective, transparent, and deliberative process of school closure suggested here has been used successfully in State registration reviews and finds favor in State law. Education Law § 402-a recommends district creation of an Advisory Committee on School Building Utilization six months before a scheduled school closing, with a clear set of factors for committee review. This is a more independent process than the current New York City formula and could profitably supplement it without sacrificing urgency.

So far, though, Mayor Bloomberg has refused to see the writing on the wall. His unexpected announcement shortly before the holidays, of almost two dozen school closures with a quickly scheduled series of required hearings prior to the PEP determinations on January 26 manifests a continued disdain for the spirit of recent statutory changes.

As a result, the Legislature should publicly contemplate buttressing the new but demonstrably ineffective requirements of Education Law §§ 2590-e(21), 2590-f(1)(w), and 2590-h(2-A) with mandatory application of Education Law § 402-a unless the Mayor recognizes that his policy of intentional opacity will no longer be tolerated.

The days of Oz and the application of naked, self-justifying power are over. If the Mayor is right, then he should step from behind the curtain and allow independent review of his decision to close each school.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.