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

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.