First Person

After One Space Shift, Our School Contemplates Another

At the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters — the decade-old unscreened district secondary school in the poorest Congressional district in the country, where I have taught for the last six years — we do a good job with a tough hand. The work here is big and challenging, and the people are wonderful.

But every year, another policy-level challenge makes our already difficult work seem nearly impossible. First it was massive budget cuts, then centralized layoffs of school support staff, a special education overhaul, rotating teachers sent from the Absent Teacher Reserve (but not enough money to hire them!), and rising numbers of mid-year over-the-counter transfer students. Now, the challenge is a second year of space changes planned by the Department of Education.

Like many other public schools in the city, our school shares space with three others: a District 75 school for students with disabilities in grades K-8; a district middle school; and as of this year, a charter elementary school. After less than one year since the last space shift, the Department of Education has proposed two big changes: The district middle school, M.S. 203, will phase out over the next two years, and Bronx Success Academy 1, the charter school, will expanded to eighth grade over the next five years.

Though the individual teachers, students and staff from the other schools in our building have been respectful, generous neighbors, the system-level decisions about space and co-location have resulted in serious concerns for the Bronx Letters community. While the city’s planning documents say that our “enrollment will be unaffected” and that we will “be able to continue offering the current academic program,” our experience over the last seven months has shown us that is unlikely to be true.

We only have one chance to convince the Department of Education to recognize Bronx Letters in its space plans going forward: a public hearing – at 6 p.m. on Valentines’s Day! To prepare, our high school House Council student government representatives planned “community education” activities, with my help. Almost every advisory group in the school engaged in a facilitated discussion around the following three questions: 1) What do you appreciate most about Bronx Letters? 2) What are your concerns related to the proposed changes in our building? 3) What is something you’d like share about your experience at Letters that could affect decision-making about our shared space?

Together, they turned their answers into statements that could be presented at the public hearing. The statements, excerpts of which I am sharing here, reveal the profound effect that co-location and space allocation policies have on the learning and growing that happens in a school building. Even if the negative consequences of sharing space are unintended, they are deep and wide — and can truly change a school. I’ve seen it happen, and so have my students.


Quin, 11th grade:

I am a Bronx Letters student and because I have a little sister in Bronx Success Academy, I can honestly say I understand that there are many sides of this issue. This is very hard for me and my family. We understand that Bronx Success wants to grow to eighth grade for a better future for their students, but we are both great schools and both want to remain that way! We want all the schools in the building to be treated fairly.

Since Bronx Success moved in, the number of students in the same classroom has increased. It is becoming harder for teachers to teach and harder for students to learn when the teacher can’t meet every child’s needs. Without the space we used to have, the classes will only get bigger and harder to manage.

Ashley, a junior:

Our school is now spread out through the building, breaking the community that the middle and high school here has worked very hard to create. … Bronx Academy of Letters has not been and is not the same place it was five years ago. Not only does this affect me now but this would affect my future. What I want to be and what I have always wanted to be is a dancer. I want to major in dance in college and make it my career choice for the rest of my life. As a junior I no longer have access to the dance room in my schedule. This has never been true in my six years of being at this school. Last year I was not given dance as a class but I was allowed to have access to it during lunch. This too is no longer true. During our lunch period, another school is having gym in the dance room! … What’s going to happen when I have college auditions and nowhere to rehearse for an audition that determines my future?

Tajonae, eighth grade:

This school year, the seventh and eighth grades moved to an area that has tiny classrooms and small hallways spaces and we are always bumping into each other, which causes conflicts that could have been avoided. Every time I am in a classroom, no one can walk around the classroom without bumping into something or someone…

Fatoumata, eighth grade:

Bronx Letters is supposed to be a family and now the middle school and the high school don’t interact that often. We want to be less spread out and have spaces that are connected to one another … Now, rooms are being used ALL the time. Students have a hard time finding teachers. One on one time with teachers is very difficult because there is literally nowhere private they can meet.

Ana, ninth grade:

We have so many opportunities to be successful in our future. One of them is office hours, which is like tutoring that all teachers have during lunchtime on Tuesday and Thursdays. You have no idea how helpful these are to me to improve my grades and my understanding of in my classes. Sometimes even now office hours is hard because there are too many teachers in each room and we can’t get any attention. But this school is already amazing by trying to help us. Please don’t take that away from us. The space we have is already small and crowded. We make the best of it but if things change too much, one of the things we might miss is office hours!

Kyesha, 11th grade:

One of the reasons why I decided to stay at Bronx Letters for high school is because I felt comfortable. By the time I got to the ninth grade, I already knew some of my high school teachers and, even better, some of the high school students, which made it easier to transition into my new high school experience. Now, being a junior, I look at the middle school students and have no clue who they are, which is breaking the school community that we once had. It is also frustrating to see that our seniors have to stay outside during ANY weather because there is no supervised classroom for them to be in to eat. I will be a senior next year and don’t know how well I am going to take having to eat my food outside in the snow. Also, during lunch time we have to wait in the hallway until the other school leaves, the cafeteria is cleaned up after them, and if the cafeteria staff is ready for us to come in, which takes about 15 minutes of our lunch time with nowhere to go.

Delquan, eighth grade:

I have been at the Bronx Academy of Letters for three years and have witnessed many changes between last school year and this one. We have been forced into the corners of this building and we don’t have enough space. When we are released from classes, we’re all on top of each other and if we had more space, we could avoid conflict. Our school is divided into different parts of the building and I don’t know the other students in our sixth grade or in high school so it’s harder to make friends outside my grade.

Destiny, eighth grade:

We also have to wait and wait to go into our Math class and you know why? Because we have teachers sharing EVERY classroom. The teachers have no time to set up their lesson plans. All of this space loss is hurting our learning environment.

Roxanna, eighth grade:

The hallways get cramped in between periods, and kids shove, push, etc. That leads to conflict and problems and we can’t ever get away from each other. Most of our classrooms don’t have windows or heating. One of my favorite classes is gym and I have to share the gym with four schools! It is very cramped and we are sometimes getting hit with basketballs. Some of our classes like Drama, Math and Health are in very small rooms because all the other rooms are being used. How are we supposed to focus in small, sweaty rooms??! Our grades have dropped because of this. We need a bigger, more comfortable environment to learn and study in.

The juniors of Bronx Academy of Letters Thomas House Advisory:

Last year, our advisor was saying that we were going to lose space because Bronx Success Academy was moving in. We felt like we had no say. We were scared, frustrated, and disappointed after we had written letters begging to keep our space and explaining all of the extra-curricular activities and opportunities we would risk losing. She left a few months later saying that she didn’t like the way that the school was going.

Now, here we are again. This year there is a new advisor asking us to do the same thing. We feel like our education is threatened and are afraid that when we, the class of 2014, return to visit after graduating, we won’t have a school to come back to. … Part of the reason why schools in this area aren’t offering a strong education to students is because of problems like this. We want our concerns and voices to be heard and to think of compromise so that our school can be successful and Bronx Success can offer the best education possible as well.

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.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.