blast from the past

When Harris met Lisa: Decades later, a teacher and student reconnect at Midwood High School

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Harris Sarney taught at Midwood High School in Brooklyn for 22 years, watching thousands of students stream in and out of its arched doorways. One of them was Lisa Napoli, class of 1980.

An “average student” by her own admission, she bonded with Sarney, also a Midwood grad, over their shared love of theater. Long after she graduated, she’d remember him as a mentor and a friend. “There was just something about him you trusted,” she says. “I felt like he got me.”

What she didn’t know until many years later was that he remembered her, too. “Lisa was bright and alert,” he recalls now. “And personally charming.”

In the 1990s, Napoli was working as a reporter for the New York Times and came across Sarney’s name in an article about Bayside High School, in Queens, where he was principal. She reached out to him and he responded right away, inviting her to come speak at his school.

“I remember a lot of [my former students],” he explains. “Do I remember them the way I remember Lisa? Mostly not.”

Chalkbeat caught up with them recently at Midwood’s 75th Anniversary Jubilee and asked them to recall their time at Midwood, and how they first crossed paths. Their interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Chalkbeat: What was Midwood like when you were a student there?

Harris Sarney: It was heaven on earth. The people, the teachers, my classmates were all bright. Well, I can’t say they were all bright. There was a healthy supply of very bright students.

There were great extracurricular activities. The chorus was known citywide and performed at Carnegie Hall. The student government was modeled on the government of New York. We had a mayor and commissioners and a board of estimates. It was a living lesson in civics. Many of the people who were active in the city of Midwood went on to careers in government.

We were a different generation, very school-spirited. It was nothing to do with intellectual gifts as much as spirit. Like the tradition of “SING!” [a school-wide competition originated at Midwood in the 1940s].

Was it considered a good school?

HS: It was the sought-after school. Students from outside the zone would come. We had kids from Eastern Parkway and those people were probably zoned for Erasmus Hall, which no longer exists. Erasmus at the time was our rival.

Most of the large, comprehensive high schools have been shut down and the real estate is being used to house several smaller schools. Midwood is one of the survivors.

Lisa, you attended the school roughly 20 years after Harris.

Lisa Napoli and Harris Sarney
PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Lisa Napoli and Harris Sarney

Lisa Napoli: It was a different city then. People were leaving the city in droves. There were all these beautiful houses fringed by not so beautiful neighborhoods.

In hindsight, it’s really interesting to think that we were all part of this clan of people who made a commitment to the city. I see people wearing Brooklyn T-shirts and naming their children “Brooklyn” and it’s funny to think that I was embarrassed when I was in college to tell people I was from Brooklyn.

What was Midwood like then? 

LN: It was just a little city unto itself. It wasn’t just a place that we went and then went home. All of my friends were involved in everything and we had keys to things. And we just felt connected to school.

I remember when our friend Jesse got a car and he drove us there, and that was a big thrill. There was a room behind the theater and Jesse had the keys to it and when we were doing SING!, we would hang out in the prop room.

How were you as a student?

HS: I was a good student, I wasn’t stellar. I graduated cum laude with an 89.1 average.

You still remember that.

HS: My parents were teachers – these things mattered.

LN: I wasn’t a great student, especially up against my best friends. But I always spoke pretty well, so teachers reacted to me because I had this grown-up personality. I wasn’t a bad student; I was an average student.

When it was time to apply to college, I was kind of casting about because my parents hadn’t gone away to school. Others of my peers had parents who were very involved in the college selection process. Many of them knew where they wanted to go. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Brooklyn, though my Italian father would have loved it.

Harris was your college counselor?

LN: He was the college guidance counselor as well as the AP English teacher, and he knew that I was a smart kid that wasn’t getting stellar SATs.

My friends were all on this doctor/lawyer professional track and he could sort of see that it wasn’t for me and helped nudge me in the right direction.

You suggested Hampshire College.

HS: I had been doing my homework about types of schools and everything that I had learned about Hampshire seemed tailor-made for Lisa. It was kind of like an alternative program, more geared to the student than the curriculum.

She was a very good student, very smart. We found just the right school for Lisa.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

HS: No. I wanted to be an actor, but my parents were very conservative. They said, “Fine, but get your teaching license so you’ll have something to fall back on.”

I was in Brooklyn College for teaching, and part of the training was student teaching and I was assigned to Midwood High School. At the end of the year of student teaching, the English chair offered me a job.

It was like I’d died and went to heaven as a teacher. I was there for 22 years.

You’ve taught countless students. What made Lisa memorable?

HS: She was interested, she was interesting, she sat up front. She was accessible. It just happens. There’s something about the student and the spark.

Lisa, why do you think Harris made such an impression on you?

LS: He was just incredibly warm. He had this incredible sense of authority about him, but not in a stern or foreboding way. There was no question that he was the adult and he was in a mentoring role. He just had this ease and command.

He, like us, was part of the school. He was just such a presence there. He was a piece of the school.

***

Harris Sarney retired in 2001 and still lives in Brooklyn. Lisa Napoli lives in Los Angeles. Her second book is due out next month.

move it

First girls, now boys: A look inside Denver’s newest single-gender, athletic-focused charter school

PHOTO: Travis Bartlett Photography
Students at The Boys School of Denver play a game with a teacher on the first day of school in August 2017.

One of the first things the new sixth-graders at Denver’s new all-boys public school learned last week was the school cheer. And unlike what you might expect on the first day of a school that drew kids from 31 different elementary schools from all corners of the city — kids who were, for the most part, strangers in matching T-shirts — they were not at all timid.

The first time they tried the cheer, their voices boomed as loudly as tween boys’ voices can.

“I am!” school leader Nick Jackson shouted with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor.

“We are!” the boys answered in kind.

“I am!” “We are!”

“I am!” “We are!”

Two claps. Loud. “Boys School!”

In the seconds of silence that followed, Jackson held out his arm.

“Feel this! Feel this!” he said. “Those are goosebumps.”

NEW SCHOOLS OPENING 2016-17

The Boys School of Denver is one of five new schools opening this fall in Denver Public Schools (see box). The five schools are opening for a variety of reasons ranging from a need to accommodate a growing number of students in certain neighborhoods to a desire to provide families more high-quality options in a city that prizes school choice.

The school district’s first day was Monday but The Boys School, a charter with autonomy over its schedule as well as other aspects of its program, started a few days early.

On the first morning, 87 sixth-graders showed up to the massive campus of the Riverside Church in northwest Denver, where The Boys School is renting space this year. The school plans to add a grade each year until it eventually serves students in grades 6 through 12.

It’s a replication of sorts of Denver’s successful Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter middle and high school. GALS, as it’s called, opened in 2010 with the aim of building girls’ self-esteem and sharpening their focus through physical movement and positive gender messages. That means starting the day with 45 minutes of movement, taking “brain breaks” during lessons, and requiring classes on deconstructing stereotypes in addition to academics.

The Boys School will follow the same model.

“For boys, they’re being pushed into being competitive or having a more assertive way about them,” said Carol Bowar, who is executive director of the organization. “We’re trying to neutralize that a bit to allow kids to develop and grow as who they are.”

A 2014 analysis of 184 studies from around the world found single-gender schools do not educate girls or boys better than co-ed schools. But Bowar points to other research on adolescent development, sex differences and how exercise can sharpen brain function, as well as GALS’s own results.

Last year, more GALS middle schoolers scored at grade level in English and math on state standardized tests than the districtwide averages. They also showed high academic growth; for instance, GALS middle schoolers scored better, on average, than 63 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math.

Leaders decided to open an all-boys school to offer the same opportunities to boys, Bowar said. Plus, she said, families with both sons and daughters repeatedly asked for one.

“We started hearing from year one, ‘I am so in love with your school for my daughter but I want it for my son,’” said Bowar, who herself has a sixth-grade son in the first class.

In a district where many schools are segregated by race, GALS has a more diverse student population than most. Last year, 55 percent of the 280 students at GALS middle school were students of color; 49 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty; 20 percent were English language learners; and 11 percent received special education.

Not all of those metrics are available yet for The Boys School. But Bowar provided some details: 57 percent of the sixth-graders registered before the first day of school were white, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were black, and 2 percent were Asian.

That’s fewer students of color than in the district as a whole. Overall, about 77 percent of DPS’s 92,000 students last year were students of color. About 23 percent were white.

GALS is also expanding outside Denver. A GALS middle school opened last year in Los Angeles, having been recruited there by a group of educators and community members. Educators in the Bay Area and Tucson are also interested in starting GALS schools, Bowar said. And the Los Angeles group plans to apply for a charter for a boys school, she said.

The Boys School is not Denver’s first-ever all-boys charter school. A previous all-boys charter with a different model, Sims-Fayola International Academy, closed in 2015 due to financial, logistical, and academic challenges.

After the assembly where they learned the school cheer, the inaugural Boys School sixth-grade class walked a couple blocks to a nearby city park blanketed by long grass that was still wet with morning dew. Jackson, who spent the previous three years at GALS, explained to them the rules of a game called Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.

Popular at the girls school, the game is similar to capture the flag. But instead of a single flag, players must steal several objects from the opposing team, including a foam pool noodle.

The boys split into two teams and lined up on opposite sides of a wide open field. When Jackson gave the signal, they ran toward each other with pre-adolescent abandon.

The first day of school was short on academics and packed with activities meant to help build a sense of belonging and brotherhood among the students, Jackson said, and to make the boys feel “well-held, comfortable, safe and like they’re a part of something.”

Too many kids, he said, are quick to abandon who they are in an attempt to fit in.

“We’re trying to change that,” Jackson said.

closures ahead

Mayor de Blasio: More Renewal schools will face closure this year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

New York City will announce new closures and mergers of schools in its Renewal turnaround program this fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, though it’s unclear how many schools will meet that fate.

“Some schools have done really, really well and I think are well on their way to no longer being Renewal schools,” de Blasio said at a press conference on state test score results. “There are going to be some when we go through the whole process, I’m certain, some will be slated for closure.”

The mayor indicated that the city’s plan will be revealed in November after a more complete review of each school’s performance, adding that schools that have become “too small to be effective” could also be shuttered.

Those comments come as the Renewal program is about to finish the third year of what the mayor initially called a three-year program, and has previously said schools that didn’t measure up could be closed. But de Blasio made clear that his signature turnaround effort would extend beyond that timeframe, saying schools that were showing “momentum” could stay in the program for one or two more years.

So far, the city has spent $383 million on Renewal — which infuses schools with extra social services and academic support — and has already budgeted $372 million over the next two years, according to figures from the Independent Budget Office. Due to previous mergers and closures (five Renewal schools closed this year) the program will cover 78 schools this fall, down from an original 94.

Designed to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools instead of following former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s practice of closing them, the Renewal program has produced mixed results so far.

On Tuesday, the city released test score data showing that elementary and middle schools in the program posted larger increases in English and math pass rates than the citywide average. Overall, Renewal schools saw a 3.2 percentage point increase in English proficiency, compared to 2.6 percent citywide. And Renewal schools improved by 1.5 percentage points in math, slightly more than the 1.2 citywide increase.

But the schools still score far below city averages, and 60 percent of them posted neutral or negative gains in math proficiency; 18 percent made no progress in English. Academic experts have also reached different conclusions about whether the program is generating positive academic results.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña emphasized Tuesday that some Renewal schools would see changes in leadership this September (education officials could not say how many schools would get new principals). Fariña also said “we’re going to be looking at our Renewal team, and we already started restructuring what some of the support will look like.”

It was also unclear how many schools could leave the Renewal program, and whether they will keep their nonprofit partnerships and extra academic support.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

Update: This story has been updated with a quote from Chancellor Carmen Fariña.