First Person

Why I’m Starting a School: The Particular Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience. All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. The first story is the particular one. The personal one and the political one will follow.  

I left Bronx Lab School at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. After 13 interviews, half of which led to offers, I joined the Academy for Young Writers, and two months into the year, I was the happiest I had been professionally for a long while.

In October, our principal told us the school was offered the chance to move from our crumbling Williamsburg building, which would see a new school added to it the following year, to a brand-new, state-of-the-art building. Not only that, the school would expand to be a 6-12 school, something long hoped for.

The rub: The new school would be in East New York. While this would improve the commute for most of our students, it meant my 20-minute bike ride would turn into more than an hour commuting by subway and bus. I told my principal that if the school moved, I wouldn’t actively seek out a new job for the fall, but if the right opportunity fell into my lap, I wouldn’t hesitate to move on.

In early January, a friend told me she knew someone great who had just been approved by the Department of Education to open a new school. When I emailed Kate Burch to find more about her school, I was skeptical. Having joined Bronx Lab in its second year and experienced the challenges of growing and sustaining a school, I swore I would only join a school in its infancy if the conditions were otherwise perfect.

Yet Kate’s plan for Harvest Collegiate High School was perfect — and perfect for me.

The school’s mission, which emphasizes teaching students to use their minds well as they become producers, rather than consumers, as a primary way of being in the world, captures some of my greatest hopes for education. The plan emphasizes common Habits of Mind, authentic assessment, a proficiency-based assessment system (what I normally call standards-based grading), and a curriculum that offers students a tremendous amount of choice in their classes. Most importantly to me, the school is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a pilot member of the Consortium for Performance Assessment, a longstanding cadre of schools whose students demonstrate their learning through projects and presentations rather than simply on state Regents exams. On top of that, the school is part of the Institute for Student Achievement, the same organization that started Bronx Lab and Young Writers and with whom I do a lot of work. The school’s theme of harvesting and food production was not my first choice, but other than that, the school plan was one I would have written.

Kate and I set up a meeting for the following weekend. In the meantime, I reached out to people who know her and only heard wonderful things. Before going to meet with Kate and Atash Yaghmaian, our social worker who also helped put the plan together, I had a good feeling about the meeting, and I talked with my wife about starting a new school to get her blessings before the meeting.

Kate, Atash and I talked for about two hours in a small coffee shop in the West Village on a Saturday evening. We found immense common ground, with my ideas for the school often being things they already thought of and hoped to do. Still, I had one non-negotiable litmus test, which I usually save for the end of an interview: how long the principal plans to stay. I view starting a new school to be a life’s work, and it should not be taken on unless core founding staff are planning to see the school through for the long term.

When Kate volunteered early in the conversation that she didn’t have any further ambitions and planned to lead Harvest for the next 20 years, at least, I was relieved. I told her I was not interested in coming to a new school to as a teacher, but rather as a full partner in planning and implementing the school, which she embraced. I didn’t realize that I was having a formal interview to join the planning team until Kate offered me the opportunity at the end of the meeting, and I joined without hesitation. My wife and I celebrated that evening.

I expected to wake up sometime later with a sense of “oh my god, what did I get myself into?” But it never happened. I said I wouldn’t start a school unless conditions were perfect, and they are as close to that as they will ever be. That does not mean Harvest or my experience will be perfect. I know far better. The challenges ahead are immense. But Harvest has a number of advantages that will give it the opportunity to thrive. Some are the result of smart people, and some come from good and lucky conditions. I am humbled by our task, embarrassed by our riches, but more than anything, absolutely ecstatic to begin the journey.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk