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 is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

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.

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”