First Person

At My “Persistently Low-Achieving” School

I work at one of the 33 schools Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated that he wants to “turn around” — or close. As part of this plan, he is also seeking to replace up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the schools, including mine.

I have worked in the same school for the past nine years. I can dismiss the sensationalistic claim from Bloomberg that 50 percent of teachers are ineffective, because it is simply not true. Likewise, when I hear defenders of educators claim that all teachers do great work, I know this is not correct either. The answer lies somewhere in between — in the case of my school, much closer to the defenders of teachers.

I want to describe the thankless service being done everyday by my colleagues and mentors. It is my hope that readers might share these personal profiles with friends, family, colleagues, and politicians to spread the word about the great work being done by educators in the schools the mayor has targeted.

At my school — labeled “persistently low-achieving” and slated for possible closure — there are several teachers with doctoral degrees. They could have pursued careers at selective high schools or even at colleges but chose to work at our school. Most have dedicated 10+ years to the school and are respected as the academic authorities in our building by both students and staff. They are able to translate their advanced content knowledge and make it relevant and exciting for our students.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there are many teachers who give up their lunches, preparation periods, weekends and vacations to work with students — for free! While this is not always a popular position with hard-line union supporters, these professionals put their students ahead of their own personal interests. Just last week, I saw teachers:

  • work an entire period with a senior on a college entrance essay, leaving the teacher with no lunch break between teaching four classes;
  • use their professional period to meet individually with seniors who are behind in credits, but hope to graduate this June;
  • come to work 45 minutes early to host a celebration recognizing students with outstanding attendance;
  • stay late on a Friday afternoon to tutor a student who needed a little extra help this marking period;
  • discuss how to differentiate instruction to reach all students in their classes during lunch; and
  • seek out other teachers for advice on effective material to use with their students.

And to think, this is just what one person witnessed in a single week — the same week that all of the teachers found out they might be losing their jobs.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — a teacher coordinates a leadership class, which has created a culture of service among an impressive portion of the student body. Students:

  • donate blood through on site blood drives, several times a year;
  • collect food, money, toys and clothing for those in need;
  • fundraise for cancer research;
  • translate for non-English speaking parents at parent/teacher conferences; and
  • host after school sessions advocating tolerance and respect.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there is a teacher who has successfully implemented a peer mediation program.  Student volunteers work to help their peers resolve conflicts through discussion rather than fighting.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — I have had students who went on to attend Columbia University and Rollis College on full scholarships and law school at Temple and Georgetown universities. Some of my former students have gone into pre-med programs, and others are finishing up with teacher training programs.

And last week I received great news during this otherwise difficult time: a student in my jazz band with whom I have worked for the past three years was accepted on full scholarship to play Division I football at West Point.  Another was accepted to two colleges —one on scholarship — but is waiting to hear back from her top choice.

Does this sound like a failing school?

In fact, the student attending West Point is the second student we have had in the past three years to go on to play football for a Division I school. An impressive feat for any program — and especially for ours, where the coach built a program from scratch only recently, several years after I came to the school. The coach has also helped hundreds of our athletes to improve academically; he established after-school study halls to make sure all keep up with their work.

When I found out about about my students’ achievements, I immediately found myself texting family and friends to share the great news. I also took a stroll down the halls to tell anyone who would listen. Out of nowhere, I found myself welling up with a mix of emotions.

One of my colleagues saw that I had tears in my eyes. She congratulated me on my students’ successes and gave me a hug. When she stepped back, I saw that she had begun to tear up as well.

“It’s just too bad, isn’t it?” she started. “We have such a great school with so many great students. It is sad that this may be the end of an era — the end of something that has been great for so long.”

“I think we just had an Oprah moment,” I told her.

For that moment we were able to share a much-needed laugh, at a time where there is little to laugh about.

Michael Albertson is in his ninth year teaching instrumental music at a large public high school in Queens. A version of this piece originally appeared on his blog, Urban Education: Music and Beyond.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.