blast from the past

When Harris met Lisa: Decades later, a teacher and student reconnect at Midwood High School

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School

Harris Sarney taught at Midwood High School in Brooklyn for 22 years, watching thousands of students stream in and out of its arched doorways. One of them was Lisa Napoli, class of 1980.

An “average student” by her own admission, she bonded with Sarney, also a Midwood grad, over their shared love of theater. Long after she graduated, she’d remember him as a mentor and a friend. “There was just something about him you trusted,” she says. “I felt like he got me.”

What she didn’t know until many years later was that he remembered her, too. “Lisa was bright and alert,” he recalls now. “And personally charming.”

In the 1990s, Napoli was working as a reporter for the New York Times and came across Sarney’s name in an article about Bayside High School, in Queens, where he was principal. She reached out to him and he responded right away, inviting her to come speak at his school.

“I remember a lot of [my former students],” he explains. “Do I remember them the way I remember Lisa? Mostly not.”

Chalkbeat caught up with them recently at Midwood’s 75th Anniversary Jubilee and asked them to recall their time at Midwood, and how they first crossed paths. Their interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Chalkbeat: What was Midwood like when you were a student there?

Harris Sarney: It was heaven on earth. The people, the teachers, my classmates were all bright. Well, I can’t say they were all bright. There was a healthy supply of very bright students.

There were great extracurricular activities. The chorus was known citywide and performed at Carnegie Hall. The student government was modeled on the government of New York. We had a mayor and commissioners and a board of estimates. It was a living lesson in civics. Many of the people who were active in the city of Midwood went on to careers in government.

We were a different generation, very school-spirited. It was nothing to do with intellectual gifts as much as spirit. Like the tradition of “SING!” [a school-wide competition originated at Midwood in the 1940s].

Was it considered a good school?

HS: It was the sought-after school. Students from outside the zone would come. We had kids from Eastern Parkway and those people were probably zoned for Erasmus Hall, which no longer exists. Erasmus at the time was our rival.

Most of the large, comprehensive high schools have been shut down and the real estate is being used to house several smaller schools. Midwood is one of the survivors.

Lisa, you attended the school roughly 20 years after Harris.

Lisa Napoli and Harris Sarney
PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Lisa Napoli and Harris Sarney

Lisa Napoli: It was a different city then. People were leaving the city in droves. There were all these beautiful houses fringed by not so beautiful neighborhoods.

In hindsight, it’s really interesting to think that we were all part of this clan of people who made a commitment to the city. I see people wearing Brooklyn T-shirts and naming their children “Brooklyn” and it’s funny to think that I was embarrassed when I was in college to tell people I was from Brooklyn.

What was Midwood like then? 

LN: It was just a little city unto itself. It wasn’t just a place that we went and then went home. All of my friends were involved in everything and we had keys to things. And we just felt connected to school.

I remember when our friend Jesse got a car and he drove us there, and that was a big thrill. There was a room behind the theater and Jesse had the keys to it and when we were doing SING!, we would hang out in the prop room.

How were you as a student?

HS: I was a good student, I wasn’t stellar. I graduated cum laude with an 89.1 average.

You still remember that.

HS: My parents were teachers – these things mattered.

LN: I wasn’t a great student, especially up against my best friends. But I always spoke pretty well, so teachers reacted to me because I had this grown-up personality. I wasn’t a bad student; I was an average student.

When it was time to apply to college, I was kind of casting about because my parents hadn’t gone away to school. Others of my peers had parents who were very involved in the college selection process. Many of them knew where they wanted to go. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Brooklyn, though my Italian father would have loved it.

Harris was your college counselor?

LN: He was the college guidance counselor as well as the AP English teacher, and he knew that I was a smart kid that wasn’t getting stellar SATs.

My friends were all on this doctor/lawyer professional track and he could sort of see that it wasn’t for me and helped nudge me in the right direction.

You suggested Hampshire College.

HS: I had been doing my homework about types of schools and everything that I had learned about Hampshire seemed tailor-made for Lisa. It was kind of like an alternative program, more geared to the student than the curriculum.

She was a very good student, very smart. We found just the right school for Lisa.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

HS: No. I wanted to be an actor, but my parents were very conservative. They said, “Fine, but get your teaching license so you’ll have something to fall back on.”

I was in Brooklyn College for teaching, and part of the training was student teaching and I was assigned to Midwood High School. At the end of the year of student teaching, the English chair offered me a job.

It was like I’d died and went to heaven as a teacher. I was there for 22 years.

You’ve taught countless students. What made Lisa memorable?

HS: She was interested, she was interesting, she sat up front. She was accessible. It just happens. There’s something about the student and the spark.

Lisa, why do you think Harris made such an impression on you?

LS: He was just incredibly warm. He had this incredible sense of authority about him, but not in a stern or foreboding way. There was no question that he was the adult and he was in a mentoring role. He just had this ease and command.

He, like us, was part of the school. He was just such a presence there. He was a piece of the school.

***

Harris Sarney retired in 2001 and still lives in Brooklyn. Lisa Napoli lives in Los Angeles. Her second book is due out next month.

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.