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.

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.