First Person

First Person: How can we teach students to be productive members of a community by removing them from it?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

As educators and school leaders grapple with changes in discipline policy in New York City, “safety” is cited as a primary concern of teachers from schools struggling to shift from punitive discipline structures to more restorative ones. As a longtime city teachers and union members, we feel that a vital consideration continues to be left out of these conversations: the impact of punitive discipline and the safety of students of color and their families.

Teachers Unite and our coalition partners in the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York have long been advocating for (and won) changes to the city’s discipline code. We’ve demanded adequate funding and resources — including staffing, professional development, central coordination by the Department of Education, and youth and parent training — for sustainable, grassroots implementation of positive alternatives. We know well that the process of transforming school culture from punitive to restorative takes time, real administrative commitment, and requires students and adults alike to change their outlook on school relationships and discipline structures.

In under-funded, over-scrutinized public schools, this transition can be incredibly frustrating, as we do not have the resources we need.

In this context, we see that even well-meaning administrators and other school staff feel pressured to show lower suspension numbers rather than work for real, positive changes in school climate. But this is why teachers, young people, and families must continue to push for further policy changes and more resources at the same time.

As public school educators, we cannot allow for our frustrations with the sloppy rollout of restorative practices in New York City to justify a call for punitive discipline. We must resist the myth that more suspensions make us safer.

The fact is that black students and students with special needs continue to be suspended and arrested at enormously disparate rates, even as the number of punishments has decreased in recent years. Moreover, there is much evidence that these discrepancies result directly from educator and school police responses to student behavior, more than any real differences in behavior between black students and white students.

These students will continue to face hostile school climates and encounter the criminal justice system at a rate far outpacing their peers if we don’t directly address the institutional and interpersonal racism that students and families encounter each day, even when it means demanding uncomfortable reflection and change from educators.

Having served several years as a dean of student discipline before working in a school that focused on restorative interventions, Tyler knows firsthand there is no direct correlation between punitive disciplinary responses and improved school climate and safety. In fact, she discovered that students who were suspended for negative behaviors actually fell into a pattern of repeated suspensions and became increasingly disconnected from the school community.

How can we teach students to be a productive member of a community by removing them from the community?

We’ve both seen hundreds of small human conflicts lead unnecessarily to the suspension, arrest, or push-out of black and Latino high school students. The over-reliance on a punitive discipline model leaves students feeling pushed out and unwanted. Instead of putting distance between students exhibiting unwanted behaviors and the school community, we should be pulling them closer and supporting them.

While Families for Excellent Schools and others try to demonize public education using narratives that rely on the idea that schools serving students of color need suspensions to remain safe, we push back on discipline systems based solely on control and punishment. We will continue to fight for the resources that public schools need, and for continued policy changes to curb the use of suspensions for minor infractions.

Join Teachers Unite in demanding that the path to true school safety be built and cultivated to ensure that parents, students, and educators have space, time, and resources to build a caring and accountable community that respects the safety and dignity of all. Join us in pushing for the city to invest more fully in these whole-school transformations, including staffing of unionized restorative justice coordinators and funding for more professional development, youth and parent leadership and training, and district-wide coordination.

And, in the meantime, find support within a community of other educators who are trying to implement what makes sense and works best for our students, classrooms, and schools, on our terms.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.