First Person

How We Cross The Charter-District Divide

Over the course of the mayoral race, if you listened to the candidates discuss public education, one of the most pressing issues facing our education system today is whether schools should be able to share space, or co-locate, in public school buildings.

There are fundamental and meaningful differences between district-run schools and charter schools, which can include curricular choices, autonomy and level of union involvement. But the political fights focusing on the differences draw attention away from another important conversation that needs to be taking place, about what we have in common.

The goal of providing the best education possible is a shared goal, and teachers in both kinds of schools tend to check politics at the door and focus on educating students. The debate over real estate does little to recognize what’s happening in schools every day: the very difficult challenges educators confront and the hard work they’re doing to improve education for all students, no matter what kind of school they attend.

Last year we joined NYC Collaborates, an initiative designed to bring district and charter school educators together to identify what is working well in our respective schools and discuss if and how we could scale these best practices quickly and effectively from classroom to classroom, creating a higher number of quality seats. The group organizes regular school tours where educators visit highly successful schools and see how they approach challenges such as curriculum structure, classroom design and management, teacher training, and structuring of the school day. From our point of view, what works in one classroom can succeed in another — regardless of what kind of school those classrooms are in.

Some of us school leaders also attend meetings of a Collaboration Council where we discuss our various perspectives, dispel myths and misinformation, and identify policy improvements that would benefit all types of public schools. The Collaboration Council is a group of about 20 educators who represent all types of schools, including large district schools, small high schools, charter schools, specialized schools, charter management organizations, and networks.

The council offers a chance to unite leaders who may not know each other otherwise; it’s an opportunity to pool resources and tips, create solutions, and share best practices. Sometimes, we tackle difficult policy questions, too.

For instance, charter schools are prohibited by law from enrolling students mid-school year unless they come off a wait list, while district schools are usually required to take any student who shows up at their doors. This “over the counter” enrollment, as it’s called, creates a division between districts and charters. On one hand, it lets charters off the hook on a challenge district schools face, but it also creates a challenge that for an arbitrary reason, district schools must face alone: accommodating students who come into a new school midyear. Would changing the policy level the playing field? It’s among the many questions we want to explore.

We already know from experience that when schools work together, children benefit.

At Explore Exceed, a charter school in Crown Heights, for instance, we share space with two district schools. We regularly host each other for instructional walk-throughs to see how each approaches similar curriculum challenges. The schools have co-sponsored building-wide events including a food drive to create a sense of community among students and staff. And we’ve even begun sharing costs to make “home improvements” like buying a new flag and two-way radios for our building’s nurses.

But there are other ways to collaborate. Exceed’s third graders were doing a unit on Mexico and putting together “all about Mexico” books. The third grade teachers noticed that P.S. 705’s bulletin board featured work from their first graders who were also learning about Mexico. They invited the first-grade classes at P.S. 705 to visit their third-grade classes so students could share with each other what they had learned. During this visit, students from both schools shared with each other the pamphlets about Mexico they each had made and talked about what they learned.

It was a mutually beneficial experience both academically and developmentally for both schools. The P.S. 705 first graders got to present their work to older students and learn from the older students, which was motivating for them. The third graders got to present their work and act as role models for the younger students.

School of the Future, a district school, has implemented a program called ZAP, Zeroes Aren’t Permitted, inspired by a similar program we observed at a particularly inspiring school visit and observation session at North Star Charter School in Newark. If students do not complete their homework or complete it insufficiently, they have to make it up that day at lunch or after school. This gives educators the time and space to have immediate, one-on-one conversations with students about choices that are getting in the way of better work habits. It also encourages students to work through challenging assignments rather than avoiding them.

School of the Future worked directly with fellow educators at North Star and learned from them how they structured their successful program. In order to fit directly with the needs and culture of our school, we made slight adjustments to North Star’s approach, including framing it as an opportunity to develop better coping skills when faced with difficult work and tracking ZAP numbers at team meetings. Since then, ZAP has become a mainstay of our culture. This is just one of many reasons why school visits and classroom observation are so important — we learn from one another and are able to expand practices that work across schools and school types to create stronger classrooms.

As with any story, there is always more to it, and that is certainly the case when it comes to district and charter schools in New York City. Still, the current debate about what “types” of schools we should operate and where they should be housed needs to be joined by the all-important question of how charter and district schools can work together to help all schools get better. For anyone hoping to lead the city and its 1,700 public schools, stimulating more ways to collaborate would be a good place to start answering.

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.