First Person

No Neighborhood Schools For You!

In New York City, schools live and die by statistics. If statistics take a nosedive, schools are closed, no ifs, ands or buts. Of course, everyone knows the old saying about liars, damned liars, and statisticians. So you’d think before taking the draconian step of closing a school, statistics would be checked with great care.

You’d be wrong, of course. But if you were relying on the local papers to inform you, you’d never know it. In fact, it appears Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gets his info straight from Mayor Bloomberg’s PR machine, and that appears good enough for President Barack Obama as well. Amusing though it is to watch politicians jump like trained seals, doing whatever it takes to grab the money Obama and Duncan dangle before them, their utter lack of vision and common sense is unsettling, to say the least.

One of the most vexing aspects of this administration’s frenzy to close schools is its absolute willingness to accept and propagate explanations like this one. While the much-ballyhooed statistics are outrageous and inaccurate, it appears true that no one’s actually planning to bulldoze Jamaica High School, as far as I know. Of course, that’s only as far as I know.

Still, even if the building will remain, does that mean residents will still get what they’ve always gotten?  Right now, if you live in Jamaica, you have the option of attending Jamaica High School. That would certainly change once Chancellor Klein places new schools in the building and stops admitting new kids to Jamaica High School.

This probably doesn’t much worry politicians. For one thing, highly publicized school closings tend to take the spotlight away from the spectacular failures of administration. Queens high schools are short 33,000 seats, and Jamaica’s neighbor, Francis Lewis High School, is already massively overcrowded. While the state and city make grand public gestures about school closings, they’re doing nothing of substance to address the space issue.

If new schools were truly the panacea they’re made out to be, they’d embrace troublesome, learning disabled and non-English speaking students, and magically make them graduate in four years no matter what. In practice, such students are far more likely to be sent to endangered comprehensive high schools. In the case of Beach Channel, it seems to have been sent the toughest of Far Rockaway’s kids even before Far Rockaway closed. After its closure, the trend continued, leading many to ask whether Beach Channel was set up for failure. Does anyone really believe newly created schools will embrace these kids? More likely, they’ll load up remaining neighborhood schools with them, causing even more closures.

School closing plans call for new specialized schools. But what if, for example, you live in a neighborhood with no neighborhood school, and your teenager informs you he does not wish to attend, say, the new Michael Bloomberg School of Basket Weaving? For one thing, he may not be interested in basket weaving. And even if he is, what happens if the basket-weaving expert they’ve located to run the school, after a particularly successful vision quest, decides she wants to go back to the commune and study Zen? Or what if she’s reassigned by Chancellor Klein after the New York Post determines she’s misused a word like “jihad”?  Who’s gonna show your kid how to weave that basket?

Sure, there might be another school. Maybe that one teaches social justice. Or quantum physics. Maybe it’s a language academy that allows kids to brush up on their Sanskrit. That’s almost the same as basket weaving. And there may even be another basket weaving academy, perhaps in another borough. They say travel is broadening, and this could be your kid’s opportunity to learn that firsthand.

That’s what we call “school choice” here in New York City. Fundamentally, it means Mayor Bloomberg can choose to close your neighborhood school whenever he damn well pleases, and you can choose to like it or lump it. After all, that’s what mayoral control is all about, despite the prattling of a few fringe lunatics who oppose it.

It’s true there are hearings before school closings. I’ve been to a couple recently. At the most recent Jamaica hearing, Deputy Chancellor John White got up and recited several false and discredited statistics. He had to pause several times and threaten to stop the proceedings altogether in order to do that. Then he settled down in a chair and spent a good deal of time playing with a Blackberry (or perhaps with Super Mario) under the table. A student stood up and chided him for not paying attention to the proceedings.

I found that very curious. I, a lowly teacher, keep my phone on vibrate and do not take it out during classes. Part of my job is to model behavior for teenagers, and therefore they have my full attention when I work with them. I find it amazing the DoE has determined that local parents, students, teachers, clerics, and others don’t merit the same respect I give my kids as a matter of course. Even more amazing, of course, is that they can’t be bothered to actually listen to objections to their “proposals,” not one of which has yet been voted down by the rubber-stamp PEP.

It is indeed convenient to have a neighborhood school. Kids are going to learn that the hard way over the next few years, as New York City can be a very big place when you don’t get into a school in your neighborhood. It’s kind of a perfect storm, as their free or subsidized Metrocards go the way of the dodo (or the neighborhood school). Parents may miss the neighborhood schools too, when they reach into their pockets to pay full price for public transport. And there’s nothing that increases property values more than a good neighborhood school — so why not fix them instead of trashing them?

But that’s neither here nor there. DOE bigshots ride around in Town Cars, send important messages on their Blackberries, and go to gala luncheons. They can’t be bothered with such things. And if the rabble wants to voice contrary opinions on school closings, they get a chance on January 26th at Brooklyn Tech.

Of course, Tweed has pretty much got its ducks in a row there, as it appears working people may have to stay all night in order to make comments. School closings represent the most contentious issue they’re facing, and they’ve now delayed a few votes on Chancellor’s regulations designed to take even more power away from those pernicious, meddling public school parents — you know, the ones who have the audacity to want a say about whether or not charter schools get to chop off pieces of the schools their kids attend.

Still, they’ve left a bunch of contract votes beforehand, to make sure everyone sits through hours of nonsense before getting to what they came for. That’s problematic for those who have to work. It’s one thing to roll into Tweed and do whatever it is they do there all day, but it’s unwise, for example, to face 5 groups of 34 teenagers after 8 minutes of sleep.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has called for the meeting to be devoted to school closures only. If the DOE denies that request, they’ll be acknowledging publicly what many of us already know to be true-that under mayoral control in New York City, there’s only one opinion that counts. It’s beginning to appear they can’t be bothered even to pretend to listen to anyone else’s.

Can Jamaica, for example, be improved? Of course it can, and the fix is easy. Deliver the class sizes NYC has taken hundreds of millions to provide. Modernize — offer technology that represents 2010 instead of 1950. Go ahead with the JROTC already planned for Jamaica — a magnet program that’s proven wildly successful in my school, Francis Lewis. Institute other magnet programs. But there’s no such plan for Jamaica, and no such plan for any other school under the gun.

Under this administration, we shoot first and ask questions later. The result is neighborhoods without schools in which local kids grow, play, and learn together — hardly neighborhoods at all.

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.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

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.