First Person

First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio with school safety agents earlier this year.

I am a high school social studies teacher, and for two weeks every year, I report to a school with scanners to score Regents exams. I wait in line with students and follow their routine. I empty my pockets into a plastic tray and putting my bag on the conveyor belt. I am watched as I gather my things once they’ve passed inspection.

I know the supposed purpose of this process is school safety, but every time I walk into this building, it’s unsettling. It’s hard for me to imagine working here — and I certainly cannot picture learning here.

This month, more than 100,000 New York City students started their school year by walking through a scanner. Since scanners were first introduced in 1992, they have only been removed from two schools, primarily because there is no process to reevaluate their necessity.

That appears to be about to change. Prior to the start of this school year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would clarify the process for considering if and where scanners are truly needed. And the release of new data just last week by the New York Police Department and New York City Department of Education, showing that our schools are the safest that they have ever been, feels like an important opportunity to follow through on that promise.

But others, including the union representing school safety agents, aren’t convinced. And through all of the back and forth, key voices have been absent from these pivotal conversations: those of students and teachers, even though we will be directly affected by the outcomes.

So I asked my students what they thought. One of my students, Justin, summed it up: “At first, scanners definitely make people feel safe and make kids think twice about doing something wrong. But after a while, most people have that mentality that [school] isn’t the place for weapons, and then [scanners] are not necessary anymore, because the school’s culture isn’t violent.”

To Justin, school climate and discipline are inextricably linked. “Metal detectors give off that vibe that the school is saying ‘We can’t trust you,” he explained. That “vibe” is unfortunately all too familiar to Justin, who attended a middle school with scanners and has friends who have continued on to high schools with metal detectors installed.

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to keep scanners in some schools. All students should feel safe at school, and we shouldn’t remove scanners from buildings where the school and surrounding community has done a recent evaluation and found scanners to be effective.

But it’s clear that many scanners are a part of daily life for plenty of students and teachers who see them as unnecessary and discriminatory.

Black and Latino students comprise over 85 percent of all students who walk through school scanners daily, while their white and Asian counterparts account for a combined 12 percent. Sixty-two percent of Bronx schools have scanners, while not one school in Staten Island does. And students notice.

“It seems like there’s no escaping the idea that kids who grow up in neighborhoods like this are dangerous or something,” another one of my students said. “School is supposed to help with that, but the way it happens, that isn’t always the case.”

Schools and communities often become overwhelmed when thinking about how to address systemic injustices — and that is certainly a part of what has prevented reforms to metal detector policies for two-and-a-half decades. But today we have a clear opportunity to address one, and we cannot afford to put it off any longer.

After all, school safety is about so much more than scanners. Some schools are already taking steps in the right direction, such as providing wraparound services to address underlying causes of violence in schools. Others are participating in a pilot program to train teachers in restorative justice approaches and reduce suspensions.

We need to expand these kinds of innovative approaches. We also need to create a process to remove scanners from schools where they are doing more harm than good. And let’s not forget to involve teachers and students in that process, too.

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.