First Person

The Emotional Fallout Of Turnaround

Approximately three weeks ago teachers at Flushing High School began interviewing for their current positions at the turnaround school that will replace ours on July 1: Rupert B. Thomas Academy at Flushing Campus. In addition to preparing students for Regents exams and calculating final grades, my colleagues were working nonstop to gather portfolio materials and letters of recommendations for the reapplication process.

Some had interviews during their lunch or prep periods while others still have yet to interview. Conversations around this time of the year generally include happy sentiments about completing another year, but this time it was, “Did you go yet? What did they ask? How did you do?” Colleagues who have successfully held their positions for anywhere from five to 30 years were dressed in their best business attire, pacing nervously in front of the conference room where the interviews were taking place.

The interview committee has consisted of the new principal for the new school, two representatives for the UFT, two representatives of the city Department of Education, one parent, and a current assistant principal.

The steps leading up to our current situation thus far have left the entire staff (and student body) extremely jaded. We all believe that there is no logic to the entire process and that the DOE had already predetermined who they will be hiring back, and most of us believed that salary would be a big factor. (For each teacher, the city charges schools the average salary of all of the school’s teachers, so principals have a financial incentive to hire less experienced teachers when possible.)

Even with the cloud of uncertainty, there remained a little hope for those who reapplied — especially for teachers with 3-5 years of experience. They had had time to establish themselves as professionals and continue to contribute countless hours to their students outside of the normal school day, but still earn a relatively low salary.

Last Thursday, all of their hope was taken away. Emails were distributed during the middle of the day to those who were not going to be asked back.

There are several aspects of this process that are still incomprehensible to me:

  • Many of the teachers who were not accepted were those who have the utmost respect from their students and colleagues. These are people who conduct before- and after-school programs, coach sports teams, and lead honor societies. Age did not seem to play a role as both rookie and veterans received the devastating news.
  • Why would the school be so classless as to notify these teachers in the middle of the day on a Thursday? This was unprofessional and highly insensitive — after all they had been through, the teachers deserved the respect to be notified in private or during a time where they could be alone. Teachers were crying out of hysteria, as were many of their colleagues who were equally devastated to hear the fate of their friends.
  • How could some people be not asked back before all of the interviews are complete?

On Friday around noon, a handful of re-applicants received notification that they had been accepted back. I empathize with these colleagues because the events of the previous day had removed any joy they felt about keeping a job that they wanted. They were also upset because they realized that the people they so enjoyed working with would no longer be there next year — it will have no resemblance to our current school.

I will never forgive the mayor for the devastation that he has caused at Flushing High School, as well as at all of the other schools under turnaround status. He has ruined our community and caused unthinkable hurt and pain to a wonderful group of people and professionals. Even worse, it is the students that will suffer most.

What will students think when they return in September and their favorite teachers are gone?

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.