First Person

An ex-Fahari teacher on the school’s likely closure

When I heard the news that Fahari Academy Charter School was not recommended for renewal by its authorizer, the Department of Education, I was not surprised. In fact, I was quietly pleased. This may come as a surprise for many, considering I was interviewed a year ago by GothamSchools to highlight positive changes at Fahari.

Coming out of graduate school and into my first teaching job at Fahari, I believed that school closure was only detrimental to schools and communities. My experience at Fahari pushed me to grapple firsthand with the challenge of actually trying to improve a struggling school.

After submitting my resignation letter this past June, I spent the summer reflecting on my experience there and trying to make sense of what went wrong.

Fahari was already struggling when I started working there in January 2012. For the next two years, first as a teaching assistant and then as an English language arts teacher, I witnessed repeated attempts to improve the school, including unionizing the teachers, pressuring the school’s founder to resign, and revamping the curriculum.

In the end, I’m very skeptical about what the outcome of the school’s charter being renewed would be. While I am deeply suspicious of efforts to close schools in New York City given the way closures negatively impact surrounding communities, it seems unfair and unjust to allow the level of mismanagement I witnessed at Fahari to remain unchecked.

What union?

Before my arrival and after some of the most unstable months in the school’s history, a group of teachers unionized, forming a dissenting group to advocate for teachers’ rights.

The hope was that unionization would address multiple levels of instability at our school. But as a teacher, I didn’t feel represented by the union.

At the end of my first semester at the school, key members of the union did not have their contracts renewed. This alone should have indicated to the rest of us how weakened the union had already become.

It felt as if our chapter simply became an extension of the administration. At several meetings, our chapter leader told us that we needed to hold ourselves accountable and “do our jobs,” referring in particular to our roles outside of teaching. These included responsibilities such as monitoring hallways, breakfast, and lunch, as well as inputting data and creating whole grade-level and school-wide disciplinary systems. We were told that leadership would listen to us only after we did these things. The irony was these were the very responsibilities many of us were frustrated about and wanted to change.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

The schools founder, executive director, and principal, Catina Venning, was identified as a primary cause for the school’s struggles. Under great pressure, she eventually stepped down from all of her roles in June 2012.

The hope was that the school’s outlook would then improve. Staff and consultants worked to reset, reorganize, and rebrand the school. Still, these efforts did not resolve a lack of consistent leadership, and teachers felt left out of decisions about important issues such as the treatment of students with special needs and curriculum design.

I also noticed a persistent culture of low expectations that, at times, manifested itself in ugly ways. I recall one teacher and member of leadership telling students they behaved like criminals and they would end up in prison someday. I heard that same teacher yell a misogynistic epithet at a student.

Another administrator required students to clean bathrooms as a consequence for poor behavior. During a professional development workshop, another school leader explained the school’s struggles to staff through what seemed like a defeatist manifesto: that in a neighborhood like Flatbush where kids’ skill levels were so low, there was only so much work that could be accomplished.

Unmet special needs

One of the Department of Education’s gravest concerns about the school was the high number of students who left the school. Making sure students stayed enrolled in the school last year was one of Fahari’s highest priorities.

Perhaps as a result, special education was hugely compromised at our school, and I was surprised not to see it highlighted in the Department of Education’s reviews of the school. As a teacher with special needs students, I was involved in annual phone calls with parents, administrators, and the district representative updating and adjusting their Individualized Educational Plans.

On one occasion, two other teachers and I were not in favor of a decision to keep a student at our school. We believed this student was not receiving proper in-class support and services as required by his IEP. We didn’t think our school could provide the services he needed, so we believed it was in his best interest to consider other schools.

Our suggestions were ignored and his IEP was later changed to include services the school could provide. Most of the decisions made about special education appeared to be made to make sure the school was complying with the letter of the law — and our enrollment numbers didn’t drop — rather than making sure students were actually getting the services that would help them succeed.

When a colleague and I brought this concern to the union it was dismissed, and we heard the now-familiar “do your job” maxim.

Curriculum hurdles

In preparation for taking on my first year as an English language arts teacher, I had the opportunity to help develop the ELA curriculum.

Teachers rarely had this sort of opportunity under Vennings’s leadership, and I initially saw this as a great opportunity and a chance to learn about effective methods of teaching literacy. Instead, I learned much more about gaps in the way we understand literacy for urban students.

The work my colleagues and I did during the summer of 2012 to prepare the curriculum for the school year never prepared me for the challenges we would face. We spent the year implementing reading and writing workshops, a model that allows students more time to read and write independently, and gives teachers time to work with small groups of students on the skills they struggle with most.

We struggled to implement this model because our students required far more support than I had anticipated. Many students in the fifth and sixth grades came in reading nearly two to three grade levels below, and by the end of the year most of my students only moved up one grade level if any at all.

We knew our curriculum needed more work, and during the spring of 2013 we told school leaders that we wanted to chance to revise the curriculum over the summer, building off our experience during the 2012-13 school year. However, when the new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, was hired in May 2013, she decided to move away from the workshop model and instead introduce an entirely new curriculum.

This approach to curriculum reflects a trend I noticed throughout my time at Fahari: constant overhauls that were made without input from teachers, and in ways that didn’t actually address the root causes of the problems we were dealing with.

I remain suspicious of the widespread school closures championed by the Bloomberg administration, but my experience working at Fahari last year has left me with serious doubts about whether the school is capable of improving enough to benefit the students and community it serves.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.