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

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.