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.
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.
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.