First Person

What Could Have Kept My Friends In School

This piece originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by NYC teens, and is reprinted in collaboration with Youth Communication. Christopher Alcine wrote it after graduating from John Adams High School in Queens this June. He just started his freshman year at Syracuse University.

Absenteeism is a real problem in New York City public schools. Just look at the numbers — or look at my friends.

In New York City, at least one in four students is chronically absent from school each year. Chronically absent means missing school 20 or more days in out of a 180-day school year, which is just over 10 percent of the time. I know this information because I read a report written by the Youth Justice Board, an after-school program for New York City teens that gives youth a voice in the policies affecting them, and interviewed a student and an adult involved in the research.

I also know the effects of absenteeism from my own experience as a student at John Adams High School in Queens, where the dropout rate is slightly above the city average, and from observing my friends. When I read the list of the possible solutions the Youth Justice Board proposed to deal with chronic absenteeism, I thought of my own high school and what might have worked there.

Why students miss school

Before coming up with ideas for solutions, the Youth Justice Board tackled the question “Why are so many teens missing school?” and found that attendance issues run deeper than a general lack of motivation. The things that cause students to skip school can be categorized as push or pull factors. Push factors are the things about school that make students not want to attend, such as poor facilities, unsupportive staff, safety concerns, and bullying. Pull factors are things outside of school like homelessness or foster care situation that deter students from coming to school. (Gangs were categorized as both push and pull factors because gang activity can occur inside or outside of school.)

After researching these factors, the Youth Justice Board wrote a series of recommendations aimed at the city’s education department and others who work with city students. Here’s my take on some of the YJB’s recommendations:

Recommendation: Help teens draw connections between school and their future early in their schooling.

This resonates because a lot of my friends and classmates don’t think school is that important. They do homework when it’s convenient, and their school day ends long before their last class. It gets hard to see where school will take you when every day is almost the same. But as the YJB recommends, making the connection between school and future success helps motivate students to do well in school.

Recommendation: Examine the impact of security procedures on school attendance.

This has affected me personally. In my high school, we weren’t allowed in the building if our first class was second period but we arrived during first period. Also, we weren’t allowed in the building if we were more than 20 minutes late. The doors were locked and we’d have to stand outside until 10 minutes before the next period started. Students often chose to go home instead of waiting out in the cold or rain. If I was running late, I’d come to school even later to avoid standing outside.

Recommendation: Develop clear, consistent expectations around student confidentiality.

I can especially relate to this recommendation. I’ve been shy and evasive when teachers asked me personal things. I’m not alone. YJB talked to teens and found that “many students felt uncomfortable discussing the reasons behind their absences” with school staff because they never knew if what they said would be kept secret. To develop trust, YJB says school staff should tell kids, upfront, what they can and can’t keep secret. Giving students this heads up is a good way of making students feel less betrayed and cast out.

YJB also says that schools should make sure to provide “safe, private rooms” for kids to discuss their absences with school staff. That could help students feel more comfortable explaining what’s behind their absences, especially if it’s because of a mental health issue, a family problem, or something else that might be hard to talk about publicly.

Recommendation: Use “chronic absenteeism” rather than “truancy” to refer to attendance issues.

I like this idea because the term “chronically absent” doesn’t sound like accusing someone of a felony. In YJB’s report, Evan Elkin of the Vera Institute of Justice is quoted saying that the vocabulary should shift from harsh “kid-blaming” language — such as “truancy” — to softer words that help to provide insight. I agree.

Recommendation: Support parents and foster parents to ensure that they are familiar with the education system and the importance of daily school attendance.

This is the only recommendation I really didn’t agree with. It may be effective to focus efforts on the parents when students are younger, but as a student gets older, attending school becomes more of the student’s choice and less of their parents’ choice. This recommendation may not be as effective for older students as the other recommendations will be. A different recommendation that I think could be more effective at getting kids to come to school is having schools offer more support (like mentoring) to students, especially those who are going through some sort of transition, returning from long absences, or students who have been left back.

Now what?

Reading the recommendations made me wonder what the YJB will do with these recommendations, so I interviewed Malik, one of the teens who worked on the report. (The YJB publishes student authors’ first names only.) He said one way to implement the recommendation about getting teens to see the connection between absenteeism and future success is to have teens write a pamphlet that explains clearly what people lose when they drop out of high school.

I learned from the report If you miss a lot of school, the likelihood that you’ll drop out goes up, which then means the ability to make a decent living is harder. A high school dropout makes, on average, almost $10,000 less per year than a high school graduate.

So I believe that if teens make a pamphlet about what people lose when they drop out of high school, the pamphlet should say something like: You’re going to want money when you’re older. To get money, you need a well-paying job. To get a well-paying job, you need to have gone to college. To get into college, you need to keep your grades up in high school. To keep your grades up, you have to go to school every day.

A pamphlet like that should just cut to the chase. High school students need to know how much is riding on their school attendance.

This piece is reprinted with permission from Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that “helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.