First Person

No Neighborhood Schools For You!

In New York City, schools live and die by statistics. If statistics take a nosedive, schools are closed, no ifs, ands or buts. Of course, everyone knows the old saying about liars, damned liars, and statisticians. So you’d think before taking the draconian step of closing a school, statistics would be checked with great care.

You’d be wrong, of course. But if you were relying on the local papers to inform you, you’d never know it. In fact, it appears Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gets his info straight from Mayor Bloomberg’s PR machine, and that appears good enough for President Barack Obama as well. Amusing though it is to watch politicians jump like trained seals, doing whatever it takes to grab the money Obama and Duncan dangle before them, their utter lack of vision and common sense is unsettling, to say the least.

One of the most vexing aspects of this administration’s frenzy to close schools is its absolute willingness to accept and propagate explanations like this one. While the much-ballyhooed statistics are outrageous and inaccurate, it appears true that no one’s actually planning to bulldoze Jamaica High School, as far as I know. Of course, that’s only as far as I know.

Still, even if the building will remain, does that mean residents will still get what they’ve always gotten?  Right now, if you live in Jamaica, you have the option of attending Jamaica High School. That would certainly change once Chancellor Klein places new schools in the building and stops admitting new kids to Jamaica High School.

This probably doesn’t much worry politicians. For one thing, highly publicized school closings tend to take the spotlight away from the spectacular failures of administration. Queens high schools are short 33,000 seats, and Jamaica’s neighbor, Francis Lewis High School, is already massively overcrowded. While the state and city make grand public gestures about school closings, they’re doing nothing of substance to address the space issue.

If new schools were truly the panacea they’re made out to be, they’d embrace troublesome, learning disabled and non-English speaking students, and magically make them graduate in four years no matter what. In practice, such students are far more likely to be sent to endangered comprehensive high schools. In the case of Beach Channel, it seems to have been sent the toughest of Far Rockaway’s kids even before Far Rockaway closed. After its closure, the trend continued, leading many to ask whether Beach Channel was set up for failure. Does anyone really believe newly created schools will embrace these kids? More likely, they’ll load up remaining neighborhood schools with them, causing even more closures.

School closing plans call for new specialized schools. But what if, for example, you live in a neighborhood with no neighborhood school, and your teenager informs you he does not wish to attend, say, the new Michael Bloomberg School of Basket Weaving? For one thing, he may not be interested in basket weaving. And even if he is, what happens if the basket-weaving expert they’ve located to run the school, after a particularly successful vision quest, decides she wants to go back to the commune and study Zen? Or what if she’s reassigned by Chancellor Klein after the New York Post determines she’s misused a word like “jihad”?  Who’s gonna show your kid how to weave that basket?

Sure, there might be another school. Maybe that one teaches social justice. Or quantum physics. Maybe it’s a language academy that allows kids to brush up on their Sanskrit. That’s almost the same as basket weaving. And there may even be another basket weaving academy, perhaps in another borough. They say travel is broadening, and this could be your kid’s opportunity to learn that firsthand.

That’s what we call “school choice” here in New York City. Fundamentally, it means Mayor Bloomberg can choose to close your neighborhood school whenever he damn well pleases, and you can choose to like it or lump it. After all, that’s what mayoral control is all about, despite the prattling of a few fringe lunatics who oppose it.

It’s true there are hearings before school closings. I’ve been to a couple recently. At the most recent Jamaica hearing, Deputy Chancellor John White got up and recited several false and discredited statistics. He had to pause several times and threaten to stop the proceedings altogether in order to do that. Then he settled down in a chair and spent a good deal of time playing with a Blackberry (or perhaps with Super Mario) under the table. A student stood up and chided him for not paying attention to the proceedings.

I found that very curious. I, a lowly teacher, keep my phone on vibrate and do not take it out during classes. Part of my job is to model behavior for teenagers, and therefore they have my full attention when I work with them. I find it amazing the DoE has determined that local parents, students, teachers, clerics, and others don’t merit the same respect I give my kids as a matter of course. Even more amazing, of course, is that they can’t be bothered to actually listen to objections to their “proposals,” not one of which has yet been voted down by the rubber-stamp PEP.

It is indeed convenient to have a neighborhood school. Kids are going to learn that the hard way over the next few years, as New York City can be a very big place when you don’t get into a school in your neighborhood. It’s kind of a perfect storm, as their free or subsidized Metrocards go the way of the dodo (or the neighborhood school). Parents may miss the neighborhood schools too, when they reach into their pockets to pay full price for public transport. And there’s nothing that increases property values more than a good neighborhood school — so why not fix them instead of trashing them?

But that’s neither here nor there. DOE bigshots ride around in Town Cars, send important messages on their Blackberries, and go to gala luncheons. They can’t be bothered with such things. And if the rabble wants to voice contrary opinions on school closings, they get a chance on January 26th at Brooklyn Tech.

Of course, Tweed has pretty much got its ducks in a row there, as it appears working people may have to stay all night in order to make comments. School closings represent the most contentious issue they’re facing, and they’ve now delayed a few votes on Chancellor’s regulations designed to take even more power away from those pernicious, meddling public school parents — you know, the ones who have the audacity to want a say about whether or not charter schools get to chop off pieces of the schools their kids attend.

Still, they’ve left a bunch of contract votes beforehand, to make sure everyone sits through hours of nonsense before getting to what they came for. That’s problematic for those who have to work. It’s one thing to roll into Tweed and do whatever it is they do there all day, but it’s unwise, for example, to face 5 groups of 34 teenagers after 8 minutes of sleep.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has called for the meeting to be devoted to school closures only. If the DOE denies that request, they’ll be acknowledging publicly what many of us already know to be true-that under mayoral control in New York City, there’s only one opinion that counts. It’s beginning to appear they can’t be bothered even to pretend to listen to anyone else’s.

Can Jamaica, for example, be improved? Of course it can, and the fix is easy. Deliver the class sizes NYC has taken hundreds of millions to provide. Modernize — offer technology that represents 2010 instead of 1950. Go ahead with the JROTC already planned for Jamaica — a magnet program that’s proven wildly successful in my school, Francis Lewis. Institute other magnet programs. But there’s no such plan for Jamaica, and no such plan for any other school under the gun.

Under this administration, we shoot first and ask questions later. The result is neighborhoods without schools in which local kids grow, play, and learn together — hardly neighborhoods at all.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.