First Person

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.