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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.