First Person

On week one after a tense summer, don’t be afraid to tell students: ‘We want to know you’

Denver Post

As school resumes, ninth graders are walking into 2,000-student high schools and and feeling uneasy, perhaps scared.

Some might recognize a small share of their classmates from middle school. But many won’t know a single teacher, and not one adult will know them, either.

They will wonder: Are the men and women in this building on their side? Is any adult there happy to see them?

In those first days, English teachers will have their own questions about their students’ writing skills and their students’ lives. As a longtime English teacher in Parker, my solution was to embrace the simple journal entry.

I would ask them to tell me about a fun, scary or memorable experience from this past summer. Write about a visit to relatives, a grandparent’s illness, your new apartment or home. Explain what did or did not go well in eighth grade and your questions about whether you’re ready to succeed.

The topics might seem fluffy to some. Aren’t those elementary-school topics? No mention of Common Core’s emphasis on “citing evidence to support your point of view”?

Nope. We have 35 other weeks to help our students develop their ability to narrate, inform, persuade. Week one, we need to get to know our students.

This is more important than it might seem for a couple of reasons. One, the 2015 Student Gallup Poll told us, once again, that by ninth grade students increasingly feel disengaged. Responses to the statement “The adults at my school care about me” decline steadily after fifth grade.

To keep our students engaged in this critical academic work, our 13- and 14-year old freshmen need evidence, this first week, that someone in this forbidding complex wants to know who they are. When they don’t get it, the results are clear.

Second, we cannot ignore what young people have witnessed this summer across our country. For those of us who teach or tutor in Denver, Aurora, or the Adams 14 districts, all of which have large numbers of students of color, questions about race and policing are even more relevant.

In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where protests flared in recent months, a recent story in Education Week profiled principals who are developing “plans to help teachers respond to students and their needs when they return to school,” including “efforts to provide students who may want to write or speak about race and policing as part of school assignments.”

“May” want? You better believe it. Let’s welcome this, and give our ninth graders a chance to try to put what they are thinking into words.

In my final years as a teacher, that first week of school, I asked my students to produce three journal entries. No magic there. But perhaps the big high school becomes less scary when one adult says, I care. I’d like to know who you are and what’s on your mind. Tell me.

Here are some writing assignment ideas …

I. Choose one of the options below, and focus only on that one activity or day or moment.

1. Favorite activity
2. Best memory
3. Most embarrassing moment/experience
4. Most difficult or most thrilling moment/experience, and why
5. Activity, experience or accomplishment from this summer of which I am most proud

II. Write about the adjustment to ninth grade. Some of the topics you might examine include:

1.) What is new? What is different? How much is the same? What are your first impressions? What will be different in the workload? What are you most excited about? What are you most worried about?
2.) Write about one or two of your main academic goals for the rest of the school year. It can help to set some goals for the next two or three months. What changes or improvement do you hope to see, and why?

III. Write a response to one of these topics.

Is there a family member you feel very close to? What makes you feel that way?
Do you or your family have a pet or pets? How do you feel about him/her/them?
If you have a friend with whom you can talk about anything, write about him or her.
What would you like to do after high school? After college?
What might keep you from achieving your potential?
What is your greatest fear? – or – What puts a smile on your face?

Peter Huidekoper Jr. taught for 18 years. He writes an education newsletter and is the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program.

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First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

By the numbers

New York City schools continue to give out fewer suspensions, though racial disparities persist

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016.

Student suspensions in New York City schools continued to fall last year year, but racial disparities remain, according to data released Monday.

The total number of suspensions dropped to 35,234 in the 2016-2017 school year, a 6.4 percent decrease from 2015-2016, according to figures released Monday by the education department. Arrests in schools were down 8 percent and summonses declined by 11 percent during the same time frame, according to the department.

While most student groups received fewer suspensions last year, black students and those with disabilities continued to be suspended at disproportionately high rates.

Over the past five years, suspensions have tumbled by 34 percent — a downward shift that started under the previous administration. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has made discipline reform a centerpiece of his education agenda, with a focus on pushing schools to adopt less punitive responses to misbehavior. As part of that shift, his administration has made it harder for schools to issue suspensions.

“As a parent and your mayor, there is nothing more important than the safety and wellbeing of all New York City kids,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press release Monday that announced the latest suspension numbers, along with a slate of new initiatives meant to reduce school bullying. He added that the programs would “keep crime in schools [at] its historic low.”

Infogram

While de Blasio’s discipline-policy changes appear to be continuing to drive down suspension numbers, some educators and critics of the mayor argue that discipline has actually deteriorated in some schools as staffers struggle to respond to infractions without resorting to suspensions.

The principal’s union has balked at the city’s requirement that school leaders seek approval for suspensions in certain situations, including suspensions of young students. Union President Mark Cannizzaro has said that school leaders should have the final say on discipline decisions since they understand the situation best.

“There are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing,” he told Chalkbeat recently.

At the same time, advocates for discipline reform say the city hasn’t gone far enough to ensure schools don’t funnel students into the criminal justice system, and insist that teachers need more training on alternatives to suspensions. They point in particular to the far higher discipline rates for students of color and those with disabilities than of their peers.

Though 27 percent of city students are black, they accounted for about 47 percent of all suspensions last school year. That’s slightly lower than the previous year, when almost half of all suspensions were issued to black students.

“If this is a city that, in 2017, is committed to creating fair and equitable processes and policies throughout the city — particularly for young people of color — then there’s still a great deal of work that has to be done,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Urban Youth Collaborative, a student-led social justice organization.

Students with disabilities make up 19 percent of the city’s enrollment, but represented about 39 percent of all suspensions last year. According to the city, that number is down 5.6 percent year-to-year.

Though Foster praised the anti-bullying initiatives announced Monday, along with the overall downward trend in suspensions, he said the city needs to come up with a plan to specifically address the ongoing disparities.

City officials point out that major violent crime in schools is at its lowest level since 1998, when those statistics first started to be collected. The de Blasio administration also touts $47 million in annual spending on mental health supports for students and other efforts to improve school culture.

On Monday, the city announced an additional $8 million in spending on new initiatives to address bullying in the wake of a fatal school stabbing in a Bronx high school. The student accused of the killing was reportedly bullied.  

“These programs are part of the DOE’s ongoing work to ensure that schools are equipped with the critical resources they need to effectively manage incidents and address underlying issues head-on,” according to a city statement.

Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.