First Person

City Could Ease Strike’s Financial Burden On Families

The Department of Education will begin helping families who cannot afford to wait to have their transportation costs reimbursed during the school bus strike, the department’s top special education official announced Thursday night.

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, deputy chancellor for special education and English language learners, told the Citywide Council on Special Education at its monthly meeting that the department was looking for new ways to make sure that students with special needs, who are disproportionately affected by the strike, can get to school. In the first two days of the bus strike, attendance in schools for students with disabilities was down sharply.

Due to disabilities many of the special education students who usually ride buses cannot simply rely on public transportation, so they instead must rely on private car services and then await reimbursement from the city. This presents a financial strain for low-income families who may not have the money to lay out to pay for private car services during the strike.

As one teacher told GothamSchools earlier this week, “But what if parents don’t have any money? You’ll reimburse them, but who’s going to give them the money to get there?”

Until last night, I have been the student representative to the council, and as a student with cerebral palsy, I have always ridden a yellow bus to get to school. This week, I have been taking a taxi because public transportation between my home and my school is difficult to navigate.

Fortunately, my family can afford to lay out the cab fare — for a couple of days. But with the fares costing $25 each way, paying up front is only a temporary solution that can last my family at most a week. But department officials told me it could take two weeks to get a check after mailing in the reimbursement form, and I know that waiting even a week would be difficult for many families, especially those for whom the costs are even higher.

Rello-Anselmi said at the meeting that the department recognized that this was a major issue and was working on a plan to address it. She said more details would be announced soon but that schools would play an important role in identifying low-income families who would benefit from getting more help paying for transportation costs. Families who are struggling to get their students to school, should begin speaking with their school’s administrators immediately, she said.

This sounds like a great partial solution. But it does not solve the fact that this strike has put unnecessary stress on over 150,000 students, including 52,000 with disabilities, and their families. As a student who relies on yellow bus service, I urge both sides to work out an agreement and stop treating students as a bargaining tool. The most challenging part of the school day should not be getting school in the first place.

And the bus strike is happening in the middle of an incredibly important year for special education. This school year marks the first time that the city’s special education reforms, aimed at creating more inclusive classrooms, is being rolled out to all of the city’s 1,700 schools. The year was supposed to provide meaningful data about the effectiveness of this reform for the first time.

But when I raised the question of how the strike would impact the reforms’ progress, department officials reminded us that the strike isn’t the first thing costing students with special needs lots of instructional time. The week of instruction missed due to Hurricane Sandy is also playing a role.

Part of the meeting was also spent discussing the criticism that a group of schools had raised about the way the city was funding schools to carry out the special education reforms. The council discussed the changes that were made to the funding rules after GothamSchools first brought the schools’ concerns to light.

But while the department’s adjustments mean schools won’t see massive midyear cuts because of the funding change, officials announced on Thursday night that they could still lose money because of the breakdown in teacher evaluation talks between the Department of Education and the teachers union.

The breakdown will cost the city $250 million in state funds, which will place additional strain on the special education reform efforts and make things even more difficult for students with disabilities.

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.