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’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.