First Person

The Kids Nobody Wants

It’s scary when schools close. No reasonable person wants to see that happen. But look at the closing schools and you’ll notice they all have certain things in common. The one that really stands out is the large population of students with special needs. Now don’t take this the wrong way — I make my living teaching kids like that, and I adore them for the most part.

But whose fault is it, really, if it takes my kids longer to graduate? I mean, most kids pass my beginning English classes. I always hope to pass 100 percent of my students, and I sometimes come very close. But when I see a kid who came from Korea 18 days ago carrying around a two-inch thick biology text, I’m not optimistic. How on earth is that kid gonna differentiate between enzymes and hormones? I just spent 10 minutes showing him the difference between “kitchen” and “chicken,” and I count myself lucky he got that far.

Unfortunately, school report cards are serious business nowadays. And don’t fool yourself into thinking they mirror report cards your kids get. If my kid, for example, came home with a D, it might be a long time before she’d see her iPod again. Of course it’s well known that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Chancellor Klein sent their kids to public schools. That’s probably for the best, because if they had, and their kids brought home Ds, it’s entirely conceivable they’d have been tossed onto the streets and replaced with 3 or 4 smaller kids, just as they replace D-rated schools with 3 or 4 smaller ones.

Yet new small schools are unlikely to take the kids who pull down the all-important graduation rates. Queens Collegiate is a shiny new school on the third floor of closure-slated Jamaica High School. Jamaica’s UFT chapter leader, James Eterno, told me that when Queens Collegiate got a special education/ESL student it wasn’t equipped to handle, they sent the kid right back downstairs to Jamaica. 

Some schools, like mine (Francis Lewis High School) take kids we know won’t graduate — they’re on track for “alternate assessment” instead of academic diplomas. And every one of these kids — about 2 percent of our total population — is counted against us when they fail to achieve a traditional graduation. You might say they are dropouts on the day they enroll.

Have we failed these kids? We’ve sent them to programs where they train for jobs they can do when they get out of high school. Isn’t that a good thing? According to the metrics that closed 19 schools this year, it’s of no value whatsoever. I’d argue that preparing kids to support themselves is of far more value than preparing them to pass a Regents exam. But Joel Klein’s Tweed gives little or no weight to the arguments of teachers.

Francis Lewis got an A last year, by the skin of our teeth. Actually, our ESL kids did well and earned us extra credit, bless their souls. But I know, whether or not our kids helped us out, we are a great school, overcoming enormous odds, all of which are dumped on us by the wholly indifferent Department of Education. They would close us tomorrow with just as much ease as they take credit for our accomplishments today.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew told me, “They send high-needs kids to other schools with no strategy to help them.” And that’s absolutely true. Everyone, whether or not they admit it, now sees the shell game that the school closings have become. Close Far Rockaway and move the kids to Beach Channel. Close Beach Channel and send them over the bridge to somewhere else. Close all the large high schools, doomed to failure by the deliberate shuffle of difficult kids, and turn them over to the next schools on the firing line. When they run out, close the new schools and start newer ones.

Meanwhile, why would city principals want these kids? They’re a drag on their statistics. And in today’s DOE, statistics are all that counts. 

But it takes a few years to learn English, and it’s entirely unreasonable to expect kids to pass biology before they do that. My kids will learn English. They’re as smart as anyone else. But they need a little time. That’s a simple fact, and we shouldn’t be penalized for preparing kids for a better future. It beats the hell out of Joel Klein’s apparent policy of shuffling them off somewhere else and hoping for the best.

So, again, why would any principal want ESL, special ed, or alternate assessment kids? DOE policy appears tailor-made to penalize those of us who take on the second toughest educational challenge there is-helping the kids who cannot reasonably be expected to get Regents diplomas in four years. 

The toughest educational challenge, of course, would be getting Joel Klein to do what’s best for children. Since that will never happen, we can only focus on overcoming Tweed’s stranglehold on mainstream media. It’s contract time, and the tabloids are busily dispensing nonsense designed to tar all teachers for the alleged sins of a few. Were they targeting an ethnicity rather than a profession, people would see them for the bigots they are. 

Meanwhile, who’s speaking up for those of us who embrace our most challenging kids? Schools taking on these kids ought to be rewarded. Under Joel Klein’s stewardship, they are dumped onto the scrap heap. The same could be said for these kids, left without neighborhood schools, and without Metrocards to get them wherever Tweed sees fit to send them.

These kids deserve better. Their neighborhoods deserve better. And it appears New York City is waking up to that fact. Joel Klein knows it, and that’s why he didn’t wait till 6 a.m. to close schools yesterday. Will that fool New Yorkers into believing he’s got their interests at heart?

Not this time. That ship sailed on January 26th, when he chose to ignore Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and every single speaker who came to the PEP meeting.And much as the mayor and chancellor might wish otherwise, neither they nor the local tabloids will be able to ignore the joint school-closing related lawsuit of the UFT and the NAACP. This suit, of course, comes directly on the heels of the one protesting the city’s consistent failure to deal with class size, despite having accepted hundreds of millions for that very purpose.

These lawsuits will help show the public once and for all who really cares about the education of these kids-and make no mistake-those people are UFT teachers in neighborhood schools.

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.