First Person

Choosing a school for my son in a segregated state (after Nikole Hannah-Jones)

PHOTO: Courtesy Jose Vilson
The author's son, Ále

A few weeks ago, I attended my son’s prospective school’s fundraising fair in their backyard. They had the standards: a bouncy house, a ball toss, a face-painting station, and a plastic frog pond. They also had some unique features: a DJ that played black music standards like Shalamar, Michael Jackson, and James Brown, a raffle for a dinner voucher at Sylvia’s, a principal in a smock running around with the kids and parents in a playful manner.

As first time pre-K parents, we’re nervous for Alejandro, a boy who already counts to 100 and reads Dr. Seuss with clarity and regularity. Academically, he’ll be fine. His mother is an assistant principal and thoughtful educator. His father has taught for 11 years and waxes poetic about the latest education research and its ramifications for a well-read blog. He’s supposed to be fine.

But our question was, will the teachers like him?

I read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ latest piece shortly after the school fair. The article, focused on the confluence between her work as a reporter for the New York Times and her daughter’s schooling, tapped every nerve possible. In my mind, I’ve played Nikole’s words in my mind while trusting my child to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program. I believe in social justice. I believe that the choices each of us makes for our child affects other children thereafter. I believe my child will be all right regardless of what school he goes to. I don’t think public schools are all that public, but, as fate would have it, I live in the middle of Harlem/El Barrio, the heart of some of the most well known — or notorious, depending on who you ask — charter schools in the country, from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy 1 to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Not only did I openly resist these school options, I even winced at the Catholic school options. As a Catholic school graduate, I hoped that the schools we chose had open spaces, creative pedagogy, and a loving environment for Ále.

We’re trusting these institutions with our child.

These choices are ostensibly connected to the larger landscape of New York City, too. Even with the latest developments in the PS 307/PS 8 fight in Brooklyn, it still begs the question of school structure and, specifically, how many of our kids have voice in the ways and means that the school they send their child to. I’m fortunate that, as parents of color who are educators, Luz and I know what to look for when we choose schools. Within a matter of minutes, we already have enough observations to fill up a notebook. Not many parents have that fortune. For those that don’t want to think too deeply on this, schools that openly advertise their schools (and have the means to do so) seem attractive to parents. Some of my associates who send their students to the local charters extol the virtues of structure and discipline.

It’s as if these schools stripped the crosses off the walls, traded them in for public funding, and kept everything else intact, including the long hours.

But as I’ve said before, the will of white parents seems to dominate the New York City schools narrative. As an outsider interested in the intersections of race and education, these conversations seem to fall in my lap. A white educator gives a list of resources afforded to her Upper West Side school that’s slated to integrate with another less fortunate school, and a list of reasons why the other school shouldn’t have the same resources in coded language. A school choice advocate throws out how we shouldn’t begrudge all-black or all-Latino schools as incapable of doing the same work as predominantly white schools. A real estate agent displays a series of brochures with properties around “good” schools, code for predominantly white institutions. School officials change their tune around us when we tell them we’re long-time educators.

None of this deals with the issue of creating equitable schools. If anything, it reinforces the idea that, so long as our students are kept separate, their schools will be unequal. And should we integrate schools, we won’t get equity in power and policy, either.

To that end, I’m nervous. In most of the schools that had the pedagogy we desired, we saw names focused on markers for success like “gifted,” “magnet,” and “STEM.” We saw uniforms, school trips, partnerships with corporations and non-profits. We saw special grants and achievement statistics. We saw the current demographics of our son’s new school, predominantly black and Latino. I went to the open house, too, mostly white parents. We heard during other school fairs how this need for competition often means that schools can get gentrified, too. We heard the parents telling us to our faces that they appreciate diversity for their own children’s sake, but not too much because it signals a bad school. Parents of color rarely get the opportunity to have a well resourced school that doesn’t see the population shift from right under them.

The political will to get it right for my kid and every other kid is not there. We have segregation of our kids, their parents, and their minds.

After leaving the fair, I finished Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article, yelling at Luz with “THIS!” every few lines. As a father, I was angry for my child. As an educator, I was angry for the 1000+ students I’d ever taught and the millions I never did. As a reader, I saw Ále in Najya’s eyes. I know she’s going to be all right because I see her parents the way I see myself and Luz.

I’m just not confident that every child has parents who are that confident in their schooling prospects. Ultimately, that’s what I seek.

This piece originally appeared on José Vilson’s personal website.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.