First Person

What I learned from four years of fighting for the city’s ‘scariest’ schools

What makes being a senior at a closing school miserable?

For one thing, students at so-called “failing” schools are often already struggling in school and facing difficult home lives. Hearing that their schools are going to be closed only confirms the sense of failure many of our poorest, most disenfranchised youth often already feel.

What’s more, given the city’s tradition of co-location, students whose schools are phasing out often have to watch a new school in their building thrive with new books, equipment, and renovated space. Students who remain enrolled in a school as it closes often feel that they might as well give up, which leads to escalating drop-out rates—the single most destructive aspect of the three-and-a-half to four-year closure process.

In this environment, any incentive, from free SAT prep to a new T-shirt, makes a difference, because it can help get a student closer to graduation and further from dropping out.

That’s what the Partnership for Student Advocacy, an organization I started four years go, tried to do, through a combination of advocacy and philanthropy. I founded PFSA four years ago to advocate for students enrolled in New York City’s “worst” schools; every school I worked with was deemed “failing” by the city and faced closure.

I started the program to try to stop schools from closing. Even though none of my own children attend “failing” schools, I was drawn to this work because my husband and I are the adoptive parents of a young black man who faced more hardship, failure, loss, and poverty in his childhood than anyone I’ve ever known. I wanted to do for the thousands and thousands of youth enrolled in “failing” schools what my husband and I did for our son.

Over time, the mission of PFSA became to make the years of closure the best they possibly could be. In other words, we made lemonade out of some really lousy lemons.

Of all of the schools I worked with through PFSA, I worked most closely with Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, a school that will close forever in a few weeks. Funds raised by PFSA provided Columbus seniors with free Kaplan SAT prep and helped cover CUNY college application fees for students who needed financial assistance. PFSA funds also made possible a senior class trip to the Intrepid Museum and paid for T-shirts for the Leadership Seniors, a group of Columbus students committed to serving the community and maintaining good grades.

No one needed an A average to get a T-shirt. We looked for students who had positive school spirit and led by example.

During the summer of 2013, I visited with elected officials in the Bronx to request support for this very special and final group of Columbus seniors—the last and only students at the school during this past school year. Senator Jeff Klein’s office came through with a $14,000 donation and presented it at a fall fundraiser for the school hosted by John Starks, the former New York Knicks player and NBA All-Star. The event and the donation were huge boosts at a critical moment: the start of the very last year of the school.

Those practical efforts to boost morale were one result of really listening to what kind of support the parents, guardians, students, teachers and principals wanted. In my work as an advocate, my goal was always to meet them exactly where they were.

I felt strongly that if I was going to go to the “scariest,” “worst” schools in the system, I’d better not walk into the building judging.

The reward for my humility was an education beyond measure. Intuitively, I knew when I started and know now that beneath the “scary” stuff, the stuff no one wants to witness or believe, exists incredible, magical things.

For example, Lorraine, a Columbus senior with special needs, came out of her shell thanks to her mother’s advocacy, Principal Lisa Fuente’s expertise, and her fierce commitment to students with special needs. Lorraine is on the autism spectrum and defied the odds by not settling for an education in practical life skills—the most that’s expected of many autistic students.

Lorraine graduated Columbus with a Regents diploma and is now in college.

The Columbus dance/step/cheer squad is another example of magic. Each year I’ve been at Columbus I’ve watched them practice and perform, and each year I’m blown away by their talent. Students cannot be part of the squad unless they maintain passing grades, show up for school and never miss practice.

The Columbus squad consistently wins trophies. Many students say they stay in school because of the squad.

Over the past four years, I worked with many schools, including the Bronx Writing Academy, M.S. 22, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Samuel Gompers, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, and P.S./M.S. 149, and I’m grateful to all the principals who welcomed me into their schools.

As Columbus closes, I’m also wrapping up my work with PFSA. I leave this work knowing I’ve done my best, and while I remain hopeful, I am also concerned.

My dream for the charitable arm of Partnership For Student Advocacy was to replicate the Christopher Columbus Fund in every closing school, but I lack the financial support and some of the skills necessary to realize that dream.

And even though this administration hasn’t tried to close schools and has a very different attitude towards struggling schools from the last administration, I haven’t seen genuine efforts to support struggling schools and their students in a meaningful way.

The problems I was tackling aren’t solved. I hope they won’t be ignored.

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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.