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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.