First Person

What I learned from cobbling together my own community school

PHOTO: The Children's Aid Society
Summer camp at the community school at Mirabal Sisters Campus in Washington Heights includes a field trip to a local farm.
imageedit_7_6263171900

I wish my school had been a community school.

In 2002, I was appointed principal of P.S. 230 in the South Bronx. It was failing because of many of the ills that plague other struggling schools: leadership turnover, demoralized teachers, the debilitating consequences of extreme poverty.

With a great deal of focus and relentless effort, we began to turn things around. But I had to seek out individual partners to provide engaging after-school programs and mentors for our students. I had to organize a group of parents to lead and involve other parents. I did not have any kind of truly comprehensive support for students.

Ultimately, our test scores climbed from single digits to well past citywide averages. And with our collective efforts, we were freed from the State Education Department’s “failing school” list.

I left the school, and in the years following my departure, P.S. 230’s test scores rose and fell. But left without the long-term, systemic support those kids and their community needed, those academic gains were essentially impossible to sustain. The school was eventually shuttered.

I later joined The Children’s Aid Society, where I now oversee 18 community school partnerships, because I saw how powerful collaboration could be between schools and youth development organizations. I supervise dedicated staff who partner with school staff, parents and caregivers, and a slew of other community-based partners in these New York City public schools, four of which are “Renewal” schools and one a public charter school.

Too often, the loudest voices in the public discourse suggest a false distinction between teaching and the barriers to learning our students face. It’s clear to me that for schools serving children from low-income neighborhoods to succeed — and sustain that academic success — we need to address both.

As partners, we do work that helps children fully access the benefits of high-quality teaching. Like other Renewal School partner organizations, we provide academic support and critical programs that strengthen well-being: medical, dental, and mental health services; family stabilization; and parent engagement activities.

I see this clearly at I.S. 219 in the Bronx, one of the Renewal schools that Children’s Aid began partnering with less than two years ago.

While the school still has much improving to do, things are improving dramatically. A school that struggled with chronic absenteeism now has five hard-working Success Mentors, each staying in close contact with 10 to 12 students to ensure they get to school every day and are in the classes throughout the day. These mentors have built relationships with some of the hardest to reach students and their families, re-engaging their sense of hope and possibility for their own futures. Those are chances my students at P.S. 230 didn’t have.

On top of that, we set up a new family resource center. I.S. 219’s parents and caregivers attend workshops on healthy living and on positive communication, among other topics. Most importantly, though, they are in the building, participating in the education and lives of their children. Their kids see that.

These changes are showing real results. Last year an alarming 75 percent of the school’s students scored in the lowest proficiency band of our state’s English tests; only 1 percent scored at proficient and above. In 2016, 55 percent (or 20 percent fewer) students scored in that lowest band, while 10 percent scored at proficient and above.

That is real, demonstrable progress. We’re not satisfied, but we are hopeful that we’re building a foundation for sustainable academic success.

Make no mistake, improving one school — never mind 130 schools — is an intensive process that requires time, focus and tough decisions. There are no quick fixes. Both excellent academics and student support services are necessary in this battle. We couldn’t do our part without full support from parents, teachers and the principal.

Schools implementing the community school strategy also need something else: our sustained commitment. We must continue to support this strategy with urgency, while not being restricted by political deadlines that have no relationship to the time span that true reform demands.

These schools, working to solve these difficult problems, need to be released from the politics of shaming and finger pointing to remain focused on the important work in front of them. Our kids deserve no less, and the future of our city depends on it.

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.