First Person

A Graduate’s Case Against Specialized High Schools

When I was a student studying Japanese at Stuyvesant High School, I remember learning the word for “cram school’: juku. Juku are extracurricular private schools that offer tutorial services for regular subjects in addition to intensive university entrance exam preparation. As a Stuyvesant student, this concept was not unfamiliar to me — spending days, weeks, or even months studying for a single exam that would determine the course of my future. After all, that level of focus was what got many of us into Stuy the first place.

At Stuy, students’ study habits really fell into two categories: diligent cramming, or skidding by with whatever means it took to snag a passing grade (granted, there’s passing, and then there’s Stuy passing). My Japanese teacher would deter us from the latter, lazier alternative by snipping off the corners of subpar homework assignments and taping them to the blackboard. “Do not cut corners!” she would chide, and gesture at the little triangles of notebook paper hovering over the chalk as testaments to our indolence.

In the wake of a cheating scandal that has propelled my alma mater into the limelight yet again, I can’t help but reflect on the time I spent at the school that boasts an average SAT score in the 96th percentile and makes college feel like a cakewalk by comparison. When Nayeem Ahsan incited his elaborate cheating ring last semester, he knew he was doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students taking the exam without outside assistance. But by the same token, to the dozens of overachievers juggling theater practice, sports, music lessons, and hours of studying and homework a night, he offered a solution to an otherwise impossible problem — namely, how do you keep your head above water when so many of your classmates are headed for Ivy League acceptance, and your grade point average is calculated to the second decimal?

I will not condone cheating. Instead, I would like to paint a picture for the parents of future eight graders who think sending their students into a four-year juku is the only path to success.

The SSHSAT is an exam created to systematically sift out the brilliant test takers of New York City. When you remove the most aggressively studious types from all the schools of New York and force them in a school together, you create an environment that is not conducive to learning, but is rather the academic equivalent of a pressure cooker. Here, competition is palpable. I’ve seen students spiral into deep depression over a couple meager points shaved off a test score. I’ve seen tiny students hauling multiple textbooks in their backpacks at once, in a cartoonish display of upper body strength. I’ve seen students skip lunch and dart to study hall to snatch up library textbooks before the next kid, in attempt to cut into that night’s staggering homework load before arriving home after sundown.

The scariest part of all this, is that it only seems outrageous to me in retrospect. When you’re in the Stuy bubble, all of these neuroses seem perfectly normal. Stress is normal. Fatigue is normal. Depression is normal.

My parents wanted me to get into Stuy for the same reason many New York parents do: to get a free ride to four years of superb academics (and to brag, naturally, but that’s beside the point). For many, it’s a way to avoid subpar educational experiences at other schools. But they encounter subpar, and sometimes even damaging, conditions of another type at the city’s beacon of excellence.

Academic reforms have recently been proposed to try and mitigate Stuy’s cutthroat competition and workload: for instance, limiting the amount of homework assigned and asking that all families sign a contract promising academic integrity. In reality, however, these reforms wouldn’t do much more than encourage students to find other outlets to excel (and whether an anti-cheating contract would be effective seems like wishful thinking to me). This is a school that runs on the steam of its vigorous meritocracy, so to try and curb competition would be largely futile. It could be that changing the admissions process, as a civil rights group last week called on the city to do, would effect some culture change. But I believe that fundamental academic reform is something that needs to start in the home.

This is no longer the age where a seat at a top-tier university will guarantee you success and a job. Bachelor’s degrees have been rendered compulsory, and they are useless if not coupled with individual passion. Young people have to be encouraged from a young age to find and hone in on their strengths. I would stress to youngsters that highly selective schools and universities (i.e. those illustrious Ivies and specialized science high schools) are not the be-all-end-all of an academic career. An acceptance letter is not a ticket to success, and it is vital that one’s strengths and interests are not overshadowed by one’s attractive GPA.

Here is the fundamental problem with our standing academic system: Standardization and emphasis on quantifiable achievement have turned schools into assembly lines, throwing individual capabilities to the wind. This is the age of hyper-specialization, and there needs to be a fresh initiative to get students to narrow down their academic concentrations and develop their strengths, perhaps by means of specific academic tracks or concentrations. Likewise, individually tailored mentality needs to be fostered in the home. Parents, I urge you to pay attention to your children’s natural abilities and cultivate them by means of extra curricular activities. Academic advisors should do the same. When I was a sophomore at Stuy, I was perpetually bogged down by pressure to excel at subjects utterly irrelevant to me. By the time college rolled around, I was so forlorn and overwhelmed by options that it took me years to discover strengths I had all along — and that if someone had taken time to notice, I would have capitalized on sooner.

Ask anyone that’s attended Stuy and they will tell you the same thing — that sure, we had some great teachers and neat facilities, but that’s not what made the school. The students were the school’s shining glory, and let’s be real — they would excel anywhere if given the opportunity. They didn’t need to enter the Stuy machine to get into “good” colleges. In fact, Stuy often works against students’ favor in the application pool, because so many of its students apply to the same schools and compete against each other. No one should be subjected to that harrowing cult of achievement.

The aphorism is true — a mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. It is a shame for our bright young minds to be wasting valuable energy on fruitless efforts. Merit for merit’s sake will only harbor frustration when the fruit of one’s labor does not ultimately translate into success. Competition is only healthy when one strives to achieve something of value — and more often than not, it is not something quantifiable with a test score.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.