First Person

At My “Persistently Low-Achieving” School

I work at one of the 33 schools Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated that he wants to “turn around” — or close. As part of this plan, he is also seeking to replace up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the schools, including mine.

I have worked in the same school for the past nine years. I can dismiss the sensationalistic claim from Bloomberg that 50 percent of teachers are ineffective, because it is simply not true. Likewise, when I hear defenders of educators claim that all teachers do great work, I know this is not correct either. The answer lies somewhere in between — in the case of my school, much closer to the defenders of teachers.

I want to describe the thankless service being done everyday by my colleagues and mentors. It is my hope that readers might share these personal profiles with friends, family, colleagues, and politicians to spread the word about the great work being done by educators in the schools the mayor has targeted.

At my school — labeled “persistently low-achieving” and slated for possible closure — there are several teachers with doctoral degrees. They could have pursued careers at selective high schools or even at colleges but chose to work at our school. Most have dedicated 10+ years to the school and are respected as the academic authorities in our building by both students and staff. They are able to translate their advanced content knowledge and make it relevant and exciting for our students.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there are many teachers who give up their lunches, preparation periods, weekends and vacations to work with students — for free! While this is not always a popular position with hard-line union supporters, these professionals put their students ahead of their own personal interests. Just last week, I saw teachers:

  • work an entire period with a senior on a college entrance essay, leaving the teacher with no lunch break between teaching four classes;
  • use their professional period to meet individually with seniors who are behind in credits, but hope to graduate this June;
  • come to work 45 minutes early to host a celebration recognizing students with outstanding attendance;
  • stay late on a Friday afternoon to tutor a student who needed a little extra help this marking period;
  • discuss how to differentiate instruction to reach all students in their classes during lunch; and
  • seek out other teachers for advice on effective material to use with their students.

And to think, this is just what one person witnessed in a single week — the same week that all of the teachers found out they might be losing their jobs.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — a teacher coordinates a leadership class, which has created a culture of service among an impressive portion of the student body. Students:

  • donate blood through on site blood drives, several times a year;
  • collect food, money, toys and clothing for those in need;
  • fundraise for cancer research;
  • translate for non-English speaking parents at parent/teacher conferences; and
  • host after school sessions advocating tolerance and respect.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there is a teacher who has successfully implemented a peer mediation program.  Student volunteers work to help their peers resolve conflicts through discussion rather than fighting.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — I have had students who went on to attend Columbia University and Rollis College on full scholarships and law school at Temple and Georgetown universities. Some of my former students have gone into pre-med programs, and others are finishing up with teacher training programs.

And last week I received great news during this otherwise difficult time: a student in my jazz band with whom I have worked for the past three years was accepted on full scholarship to play Division I football at West Point.  Another was accepted to two colleges —one on scholarship — but is waiting to hear back from her top choice.

Does this sound like a failing school?

In fact, the student attending West Point is the second student we have had in the past three years to go on to play football for a Division I school. An impressive feat for any program — and especially for ours, where the coach built a program from scratch only recently, several years after I came to the school. The coach has also helped hundreds of our athletes to improve academically; he established after-school study halls to make sure all keep up with their work.

When I found out about about my students’ achievements, I immediately found myself texting family and friends to share the great news. I also took a stroll down the halls to tell anyone who would listen. Out of nowhere, I found myself welling up with a mix of emotions.

One of my colleagues saw that I had tears in my eyes. She congratulated me on my students’ successes and gave me a hug. When she stepped back, I saw that she had begun to tear up as well.

“It’s just too bad, isn’t it?” she started. “We have such a great school with so many great students. It is sad that this may be the end of an era — the end of something that has been great for so long.”

“I think we just had an Oprah moment,” I told her.

For that moment we were able to share a much-needed laugh, at a time where there is little to laugh about.

Michael Albertson is in his ninth year teaching instrumental music at a large public high school in Queens. A version of this piece originally appeared on his blog, Urban Education: Music and Beyond.

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.