First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.