mayoral challenge

Education candidate Josh Thompson challenging de Blasio with long-shot bid for mayor

PHOTO: Courtesy Photo
Josh Thompson, 31, is seeking the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor.

As a teen with an unstable home, Josh Thompson says a private school helped save his life. Now, he wants to make sure more kids have the same opportunity.

Thompson, 31, is seeking the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor. He joins a growing list of long-shot candidates lining up to challenge incumbent Bill de Blasio in the September 2017 primary.

Thompson supports school vouchers, charter schools and merit pay for educators — all contentious issues in New York City, where the teachers union is famously strong. He says he admires former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who worked with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to overhaul school accountability, but Thompson suggested he wouldn’t go out of his way to antagonize the unions.

“You take what works and you expand it — whether that is vouchers, whether that is a traditional public school,” he said. “We have the resources, we have the buildings and we have the innovation. It’s tapping into those things.”

A top official at New Leaders — a national education nonprofit that trains principals and other school officials — Thompson previously worked for the mayors of Washington, D.C. and Bridgeport, Conn.

He got his first taste of politics as a volunteer for Cory Booker’s mayoral campaign in Newark and considers Booker, now a U.S. senator, a mentor.

Thompson’s support for school vouchers can be traced back to his experience at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory, an all-boys Catholic school in Newark that he credits with turning around his life. Born in North Carolina, Thompson said he spent much of his childhood bouncing around the country as his mother tried to make ends meet. St. Benedict’s, nationally recognized for its work with inner-city youth, offered him housing and picked up the tuition bill.

Thompson wants other low-income students to have access to schools like his, though he’s likely to face obstacles if he tries to launch a voucher program in New York City. If necessary, Thompson said he would create a private fund with the hope of tripling the number of low-income students attending private schools.

“Most of us want choice for everything we do in life,” he said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “But when it comes to black and brown children and inner city education, we lose our backbone when it comes to choice.”

Thompson is also challenging the mayor on charter schools. While de Blasio must, by law, accommodate new charter schools within district school buildings or pay their rent, Thompson and others have accused the mayor of dragging his feet when it comes to making such decisions.

Thompson said de Blasio often waits “until the shot clock goes off” to accommodate charter school co-locations, and that, if elected, he would streamline the process.

Thompson also advocates for incentive pay for educators and more power for principals, concepts Mayor Bloomberg also supported.

New York City has already dabbled in both vouchers and merit pay; research showed that neither venture paid off as hoped. In both cases, student achievement failed to significantly improve.

As of July, Thompson’s campaign was about $23,000 in debt, though he said a new round of campaign finance reports due in January will show significant fundraising. The July report showed many small donations, with contributions from education reform advocates and individuals affiliated with charter school networks such as Achievement First, where his wife, Julia, is the founding dean of a Brooklyn charter school.

Jamaal Bowman, an outspoken principal in the Bronx, gave a $15 donation. He said he plans on giving to other candidates, too, but praised Thompson as “a supporter of public schools.”

“I believe he has a whole-child view of education. He’s not looking at a one-size-fits-all approach,” Bowman said.

De Blasio’s approval ratings slid last spring and summer amid investigations into his fundraising tactics, and they remain mediocre. But the mayor has tallied more than $2 million for his reelection bid and recently scored the early endorsements of some city council members and labor unions.

Though the United Federation of Teachers has yet to officially endorse a candidate, former president Randi Weingarten, now head of the American Federation of Teachers, is reportedly planning a fundraiser for de Blasio in January.

Chalkbeat reporter Monica Disare contributed to this report. 

Clarification (Dec. 21, 2016): This story has been updated to reflect that Thompson said the next round of campaign reports will show significant fundraising.

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.