First Person

On Breaking the Class Size Barrier

I know a 15-year-old that has seen somebody die. Some of my students have seen their siblings shot on the street in cold blood, or handcuffed and taken to jail. Some of my students have been arrested themselves. They watch their parents break their backs to make rent, or pay the electric bill, or feed their families. (Many students find it difficult to do homework when their homes don’t have electricity, or on an empty stomach.)

Many of my students have experienced (and continue to experience) all of these things. They are 15. I can count on two fingers— not even a hand — the number of people close to me who had died or been arrested by the time I was 15. Back then, my biggest worry was learning how to record “The X-Files” correctly onto VHS. My students, on the other hand, have much more to worry about.

I have learned this after two months of working at a school in South Bronx. I am a teaching assistant in large classes in the Bronx through a program called Blue Engine, where we partner with district schools and their teachers to build closer relationships with high school students. Blue Engine’s goal, which GothamSchools covered last year, is to dramatically increase academic rigor in the classroom. We want to tackle a growing issue in New York City schools: that we can get many kids to college, but not through college. In fact, the current remediation rate at CUNY schools for New York City residents is 70 percent. That means that 70 percent of city high school graduates that go on to college are not prepared for the rigor and expectations of CUNY classes. They take remedial courses for zero credit, pay full tuition, and take on heaps of loans. It’s no surprise that within six years 51 percent of CUNY students drop out.

The goal of Blue Engine is to increase academic rigor so that students are college-ready — whether or not they will actually end up going to college. The idea is that the skills that make up college-readiness are crucial for students to have because they give students choices.

The core of the Blue Engine model — and what ultimately drew me towards applying for the BETA position in late winter, when it seemed that I wasn’t a good fit for many other straight-out-of-college teacher prep programs — is the way that it re-envisions the classroom. By dividing classes of 34 into small groups of seven (one for each Blue Engine Teaching Assistant, or BETA), we can differentiate more effectively, build stronger relationships with students faster, and more closely track students’ academic and socio-emotional behavior. The lead teacher gives the mini-lessons and plans the curriculum while we help execute instruction in small groups and monitor independent practice. In a classroom of 34, it’s so easy for a child to fall through the cracks. But in a Blue Engine classroom, the stakes are rigged in the student’s favor.

In the first two weeks of school, for example, one BETA at my school observed that one of her ninth-grade students who sat in the back of the room never participated and seemed not care about homework. She realized that he was an English language learner and knew very little English. His native language is Arabic, a language that nobody else in the school speaks. Almost immediately she began meeting with him after school and helping him not only to learn basic English skills but also to develop strategies for success in his other non-English classes (e.g. providing an English-to-Arabic glossary for key words he would see frequently in his math class).

While that BETA took on this challenge, I was struggling with one of my students who was suspended in the second week of a school for three days (which was a full week, due to days off). At the beginning of his suspension, he told me, “I’m going to transfer schools at the end of the year.” In my free time, however, I was able to conference with him and the social worker during my lunch hour, spend time with him every day after school, keep him caught up on the homework, and then help him transition into the classroom routine upon his return this past week. I asked him on his first day back if he still wanted to switch schools. He replied, “Naw, I changed my mind.” A lead teacher alone with 120 students would be hard-pressed to have found time to do all this.

These things are not spectacular. We know that these interventions can be found in every classroom. But the difference is that in our classrooms, there are five times as many interventions happening per day, and they are happening months earlier than they would in a traditional classroom. The 1:7 ratio is crucial for these students because when they count the number of people they know who have died or been arrested they run out of fingers on their hands. They have been through so much, more than any 15-year-old should have to deal with, and because of this I believe they need closer attention, more positive role models, and stronger teacher-to-student (as well as peer-to-peer) relationships. That 1:7 ratio is the key to building towards these goals over the course of the year.

In addition, this year Blue Engine will be piloting a new “social cognition” curriculum at our schools where we will be explicitly teaching non-cognitive skills. We will teach students about goal-setting, how the brain works, how people learn, and how to accept failure and keep trying. This is a lofty goal, but I hope to scaffold my way there by integrating the “social cog” curriculum into other classes whenever possible. I will give a play-by-play over the course of the year about how my students respond to the explicit instruction of these non-cognitive skills, and what this could mean for their futures.

Hopefully, it means that they will come away from high school with more than just knowledge. I remember when I went off to college, I decided to leave all my “X-Files” episodes at home. It was natural, something that I had grown out of. Just as easily, we can grow out of most of our high-school experiences — the friends we made, the identity we carved out, and most of the things we learned.

I don’t know where my students will be going when they graduate high school, nor do I know what they will be taking with them. But I hope to give them something more substantial than the definition of a “motif,” something more meaningful than a basic knowledge of algebra — I want them to have choices.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.