First Person

Save Jamaica High School

Jamaica High School is a magnificent building — a beacon on a hill that stands out in a distinctly middle-class neighborhood in Queens. It is majestic and elegant — a literal landmark that exudes history.

Walk the halls and you will see black and white pictures of tweed-suited principals. You can see one of them appearing on “Open End” with David Susskind, discussing some important issue or other. When was the last time you saw a high school principal interviewed on a news show?

Walk further and you will see photos of the doughboys who died in World War I. This one died of malaria. That one perished from pneumonia. Then comes the World War II vets. They’ve all passed through these halls, and why not? Jamaica High School has been an integral part of the community for 118 years.

Alas, Chancellor Joel Klein has passed a writ of execution on Jamaica High School, threatening an abrupt halt to its rich history. The primary reason given is that Jamaica has a graduation rate of less than 50%. But the Chancellor’s statistics are wrong. This is not surprising because the school operates with a secretarial staff slashed from 13 to 5, insufficient guidance personnel and a relatively new principal. After the Chancellor issued his death sentence, a careful review of the graduation data revealed that 258 of fewer than 500 seniors graduated in 2009, which is clearly over 50%.

Jamaica’s four-year graduation rate was 38% in 2005, 42% in 2006, 52% in 2007, and 53% in 2008. This is real progress. Last month, Chancellor Klein celebrated the city’s 14% gain in math NAEP scores from 2003-2009 as a tremendous success. Why on earth, then, is Jamaica’s four-year 15% rate gain, marginally outpacing the Chancellor’s own progress, not also a tremendous success?

The Chancellor’s assertion that only one in four Jamaica students receives a Regents Diploma is also inaccurate. In 2009, Jamaica had 143 Regents Diplomas, 35 Advanced Regents Diplomas and 4 Advanced Regents Diplomas with Honors. That adds up to 182-well above 25%, and a 13% increase from the 159 in 2008.

Another reason cited for Jamaica’s closure is declining enrollment. Jamaica is just beginning to recover from the stigma created when the Department of Education labeled the school “persistently dangerous” after a previous principal insisted on reporting even the most minor of incidents. Enrollments have actually leveled off and are starting to go up. They would rise much more rapidly if Jamaica received proper support.

If Jamaica High School dies, money will be lavished on new schools that will take years to grow. These schools will likely turn away the non-traditional “over the counter” pupils that Jamaica accepts. 330 students registered “over the counter” so far this fall (well over the 273 that enrolled over the Fall 08 semester). Many came from other states and other countries. Where will these students go next year? These are precisely the students new schools tend to shun.

Queens Collegiate, a new small school started in 2008 within Jamaica’s facility, has only 6 English language learners and zero most restricted environment special education students. Jamaica High School has 170 in special education, 259 English language learners and 71 students with interrupted formal education. Similar pupils will more than likely go to neighboring comprehensive high schools in Queens next year, despite the fact there’s virtually no space for them.

On December 16th, Chancellor Klein sent Debra Kurshan, head of the DoE’s Office of Portfolio Planning, to a public meeting at Jamaica. Ms. Kurshan assured the outraged crowd that the closure of Jamaica was not a done deal. It was just a proposal that required approval from the Panel for Educational Policy before it could be finalized. Ms. Kurshan made this statement without a hint of irony.

Up to now, the PEP has never rejected any request by the Mayor or the Chancellor. We pin our hopes on the possibility that the Mayor, the Chancellor, or the panel itself will consider all the negative consequences of closing this historic school. Jamaica High School has long been a cornerstone of the community.

It would be an egregious error to close Jamaica High School, particularly since the decision relies on blatantly inaccurate data. Its demise would cause irreparable damage not only to the Jamaica community, but to surrounding neighborhoods as well. The fall of this once-proud school would cause a chain reaction, damaging other high schools in nearby neighborhoods. The closing of the school would be a failure for the Department of Education, which has no strategy to help struggling schools.

Let’s stop destroying neighborhood schools, and begin working to fix them.

James Eterno is the UFT chapter leader at Jamaica High School. Arthur Goldstein is the UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School and a regular contributor to the GothamSchools community section.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.