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

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.