BIG PICTURE

After a school in Harlem is saved, parents and community leaders turn their attention to broader issues

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The city Department of Education has proposed merging P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan into P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, about eight blocks away in Harlem.

Plans to merge an elementary school in Harlem have been put on hold, city Department of Education officials announced Monday.

The decision marks a victory for parents who rallied to keep P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan in its place, and could signal the start of a broader dialogue about school equity in District 3, which stretches from the Upper West Side to Harlem.

After years of low enrollment and poor test scores, the Department of Education had proposed to merge P.S. 241 with nearby P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, and redraw the attendance zone around P.S. 241.

But parents and community leaders complained they were given too little notice of the change. Some also saw the move as symbolic of larger issues in Harlem, where struggling schools face intense competition from charters. P.S. 241, for example, shares its building with two different charter schools.

Meanwhile, the district’s Upper West Side schools are generally packed with students and earn high marks on state tests.

Members of the Community Education Council, which votes on rezoning proposals, hinted recently that they would not support the plan to redraw P.S. 241’s attendance boundaries. Instead, they called for a closer look at declining enrollment in the area and hope to craft a plan to support Harlem schools.

Kim Watkins, who chairs the CEC’s zoning committee, said the city’s decision to drop the proposed merger and rezoning “is a signal that they understand the district needs a far more comprehensive solution.”

“We really need to work to bring together the stakeholders in the community who can brainstorm ways to improve the schools,” she said.

Watkins said the council will kick off those efforts in the new year, and has plans for a formal summit in the spring to “thoughtfully consider” the district’s needs and options.

“The true answer lies in having the time to make sure parents are able to talk about the things that they need,” she said.

Maria Garcia, who has two children at P.S. 241, said she and other parents are already thinking about ways to match the recruitment efforts they see in neighborhood charter schools. For her, the school’s curriculum — which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math — is a unique selling point, especially for black and Hispanic parents who want their children to have access to in-demand jobs.

“All schools are important, but for me STEM is something more emblematic. Families need this,” she said. “What should be done, what can be done, to market this school and raise it up?”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.