First Person

More Equal than Others

Overcrowding comes to city schools for various reasons. In my school, our reputation makes kids want to come, we have magnet programs like JROTC that attract kids from near and far, and there’s never been a cap on enrollment. Neighborhood schools like PS 123 don’t get the opportunity to grow and expand because other schools are simply placed into whatever vacant spaces they may have. In fact, as Juan Gonzalez reported, space they’d actually been using was commandeered by a charter school chain. It now appears Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy will be taking that space permanently.

PS 123 has gone from an F-rated school to a B-rated school, and you’d think that would merit some encouragement from the Department of Education. You’d be mistaken. Rather than expand upon the progress they’ve made, the building that houses PS 123 has become a civics lesson for all who teach and study there—a newly designed two-tier education system. 55 years ago, Brown v. Board of Education stated, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” At PS 123, separate educational facilities can be found within the same school building.

In fact, some families have one kid in 123, and another in HSA. But it’s pretty clear to all that the schools are different. For one thing, all HSA classrooms are painted and renovated before kids even attend. A few weeks ago, protesters questioned why the whole school couldn’t be painted, rather than just the HSA section. You have to wonder why an administration that prides itself on placing “children first” would allow so many children to be second priority.

HSA classrooms are air-conditioned. They are equipped with 21st-century technology, like smartboards and overhead projectors. Parents tell me they get new furniture and carpets. You have to wonder how PS 123 kids feel, seeing what the charter kids get. You don’t need to wonder what parents want—they want their kids to study under the best possible conditions, and HSA is an in-your-face reminder just what lottery winners can get.

Even the bathrooms are renovated. HSA kids get new furniture in the bathrooms, including chairs, as well as potpourri. I’m not sure why they need chairs in the bathrooms, but I think the potpourri is a nice touch. Having seen scores of public school bathrooms that would turn your stomach, I think Ms. Moskowitz is onto something.

At a July 20th rally at PS 123, several speakers stated that the DoE supplied Ms. Moskowitz with a list of students who’d scored 3s and 4s on citywide tests. Those students were then sent invitations to apply. A parent compared HSA and PS 123 to the plantation and the big house—some get first-class treatment while others toil away. And some kids, apparently, watch their siblings in the big house while they’re stuck in the plantation.

It’s one thing to allow innovative charters to offer kids courses of study they may not get in neighborhood schools. It’s quite another to systematically starve public schools of resources while making a blatant show of what charter schools get. It’s hard to see how PS 123 staff and students can stay inspired and focused on improvement when they’re so clearly receiving fewer resources and opportunities than their neighbor. It must be particularly infuriating to know that kids who don’t work out at HSA will quite possibly be bounced right back into PS 123—which gets the test scores, the expenses, and whatever undesirable behavior that caused the kids to be transferred, while HSA keeps the funding.

At the June 20th rally, I spoke with an HSA parent who felt the controversy was not necessary. He said there were vacant school buildings nearby, and that the city denied them to Ms. Moskowitz, thus forcing her to move into PS 123. Perhaps if the city had allowed her to use those buildings, there would not be so much unrest floating around this school. Is the Department of Education trying to make parents feel that neighborhood schools are second-class institutions?

I don’t begrudge the kids in HSA their classrooms or learning conditions. If smartboards help them, if air-conditioners make them more comfortable, if catered snacks from Fresh Direct keep them focused, fine. I only wonder why PS 123 kids can’t have the same. I also wonder, from my vantage point in a trailer well past its expiration date, why my kids can’t have decent learning conditions either.

Because, frankly, all kids should have decent learning conditions—whether or not they happen to win charter lotteries.

Arthur Goldstein teaches English as a Second Language at Francis Lewis High School in Queens. He is also the school’s UFT chapter leader.

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.