First Person

Unable to suggest other schools, teachers left with special ed reform dilemma

In February, I sat down with a new student I’ll call Diego, a 15-year old boy who had just moved to New York City from a Spanish-speaking country. He came to my school, New Design Middle School in West Harlem, clutching a paper from Department of Education district representative.

The document said he should receive additional small-group support once per day with students who have special needs. It was based on evaluation written in his home country seven years ago.

My intermediate Spanish was the best the special education department at our school had to offer, so I talked to Diego about his previous school experiences as conflicting thoughts went through my head. It quickly became clear that he had missed years of schooling and could scarcely read in Spanish. He also spoke no English.

As my school’s special education coordinator, I knew the language supports at our school were geared toward students with more advanced English. I knew we were already struggling to integrate the many new students who had joined us since the start of the school year. I knew there were seats open in a bilingual special education program at a school down the road. But, as we do each time the district sends us a new student, we enrolled Diego, even knowing other schools were more equipped to meet his needs.

It wasn’t a choice. We were complying with special education reforms rolled out citywide in 2012, which require city schools to accommodate the needs of any student with permission to enroll, unless that student has a very specialized program. We can’t even suggest that a student look at other schools.

Given that students with special needs have a history of being isolated and denied the educational opportunities their peers receive, I think this is an important policy with many benefits. But I’m also concerned that the policy has schools like mine constantly scrambling to support the needs of new students who might be better served by different schools. 

It’s not that my colleagues and I don’t want to teach Diego. He’s a lovely person—sweet, patient, forgiving, and works well with everyone. We’ve given him learning materials and teacher support; we even hired a bilingual para-professional for him to ensure that he gets additional help. But while we’ve made arrangements to support him to the best of our ability, as is our responsibility with every new student, he deserves something our school just can’t offer midway through the school year due to funding and staffing: a highly-trained bilingual professional with experience helping students with special needs learn a new language and learn how to read and write.

I could tell many variations on Diego’s story. In a school of approximately 300 students, we have had 20 new students with Individualized Education Programs enroll at our school since the school year began. Ten have come in 2014 alone. A new student enrolled last week. Three of the students who came in the middle of the year were slated for highly restrictive Special Education schools, known as District 75 schools, but administrative complications and legal forms left uncompleted by other schools put the kids in limbo.

Constantly integrating new students makes it harder for us to create the kind of environment we know is important for all students to be successful. Middle school students – especially many with special needs – thrive in environments with consistency. Classroom cultures take months to establish. Counseling groups develop trust with time and through deepening relationships. Speech providers work with small groups of students with comparable needs together throughout a year. So why must we have the most upheaval in our classes that need the most consistency?

On some level, it’s inevitable that the populations of public schools will change throughout the year. Kids enter the system or change schools all the time for many reasons, including when they move or lose homes because their parents’ employment situations change or family dynamics shift. It would be foolish for me to expect that the group I begin with at the beginning of the year will be the same by the end. But it’s one thing to integrate a student whose needs we’re already equipped to meet, and another to try to meet needs we hadn’t accounted for at the beginning of the year.

As a special education team, it feels like we’re constantly scrambling. By the time I know which students can sit together, who struggles to grasp the main idea, and who needs reminders to stay focused, a new child joins the group. Some integrate fairly easily, while others struggle to adapt to new classmates and teachers; all need support acclimating to the new environment that inevitably draws teachers’ time away from long-term work and planning for other students. A child is not a fire to put out, but it can feel that way.

I understand why schools are required to accept new students with a wide range of needs. But I can’t help wondering if we’re actually helping the kids the policy is designed to support.

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First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.