First Person

My neighbors told the New York Times that going to our local school is ‘malpractice.’ We picked it anyway

PHOTO: Mia Simring
An integration debate in District 3 has put schools like West Prep in the spotlight. Teachers and school leaders say their low test scores hide the progress many students make once they enroll there.

This is the third entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

I knew schooling would be a sticky issue for my husband and me. He was raised by two public school teachers, opted out of his zoned school to go to a less well resourced one, and saw active engagement in the public school system as a duty of citizenship.

Meanwhile, I had been raised by striving parents and sent to the infamously elite Horace Mann School, where I was decidedly not in with the in-crowd — and I loved it. I loved that if I could dream it, I could write up a proposal and get a budget for it. I loved that I found my home in the out crowd, the goths and punks and nerds and theater kids. But I don’t think Horace Mann ensured my or my classmates’ success later in life.

So when we realized late last year that my daughter, born in the last week of 2012, could be entering kindergarten in 2017, I tried to keep an open mind, unclouded by the terrible things my mother had always said about public school. The fact was, my husband and I shared the primary goal of finding an educational setting that would first and foremost support our daughter’s social and emotional development. We realized this might have been different from our (and especially my) parents’ goals. We decided to first look at public schools, since we figured we would have the option of starting her a year later if she went to private school.

We started with P.S. 145, the school across the street from our apartment in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood of the Upper West Side. We see into the classrooms from our windows, and occasionally hear music classes in the morning. I didn’t expect to like it, not because of anything I had observed, but simply because no one I knew liked it. Anyway, the test scores were abysmal, some of the lowest in the district. I figured we would do our due diligence, then send her to private school next year or push for a spot at the progressive and beloved Manhattan School for Children, a public school that accepts students from across our district. That’s what so many other families like ours do, including our neighbors whom the New York Times profiled recently in a story about the complexity of school choice.

When we went to P.S. 145, I was stunned. Where were the disciplinarian teachers yelling at the kids? The overcrowded classrooms? The sheer lack?

The fact is, I was charmed by the abundance and diversity of student artwork, not only in classrooms but throughout the common spaces. I was impressed that each student has art, music, and dance each week, and that the goal is to build kids’ confidence not only as artists, but as people. The Studio in a School art teacher explained how they do an art school-style critique at the end, where students are encouraged to make observations about their classmates’ work. She also told us that they displayed not only works the students were most proud of, but also pieces they might feel ambivalent about, to show that all kinds of artistic expression can be appreciated. There was a new TV studio with a dedicated and very enthusiastic educator, Mr. Hunter, who would help teachers and students integrate video projects into their academic work. There were two dual language tracks. The teachers seemed happy and kind, and the students did, too.

But there were a few things that irked me. First, there was the giant “Merry Christmas” banner that greeted me in the lobby. Yes, there were some nods to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa throughout the school, but as a religious Jew, I was uncomfortable with how Christmassy it all was.  Second, because of timing, we hadn’t seen a lot of actual classroom instruction. Moreover, there was a typo in an assignment posted on the wall. I’m nitpicky like that.

Still, the arts programming and the overall positive environment attracted me for our daughter. People had warned us that P.S. 145 was the bottom of the barrel — so I was excited to move on to the higher-tier public schools!

Manhattan School for Children was next on our list. It was recommended by parents that we love and respect as friends and mentors. The parent volunteers spoke my language: “progressive education,” “constructivist philosophy,” “integrated curriculum.” I was swooning.

But, by and large, I did not see it borne out in the instruction. Yes, the school was lovely (oh, that greenhouse!), but I didn’t see the progressive instruction I was craving. I saw frontal instruction over and over again. And while the parent volunteers talked about process-over-product oriented arts, the integrated curriculum meant that the arts (at least what we saw) were in service of the academics. Instead of seeing students given materials and challenged to create, we saw assignments that asked them to, for example, make a cloud out of cotton balls or build papier mache globes. And the classes were so big — 27 kids per classroom, as compared to the 18 kids in P.S. 145 classrooms. My daughter tends to get lost in the crowd — and lost in her inner thoughts — so opportunities for an adult to make eye contact with her were important to me.

Then, my husband pointed out that of 27 kindergarteners, only two were kids of color. I wondered how that could be, given the school’s blind admissions lottery and the demographics of the people we see in the neighborhood every day. Again, the school was fine, but after all the hype, I wondered: Is this really what we wanted?

My mom used to say, “People in New York always talk about real estate and schools.” This year was the year of the latter for me. I talked to everyone I could. On the street, a friend introduces me to an Manhattan School for Children parent: “They are really trying to reduce the amount of homework they were giving, because studies show homework doesn’t really help elementary school kids.” Hey, I said to my friend, who still has a few years before this applies to her, P.S. 145 also doesn’t emphasize homework for that very reason! She shakes her head. “So it’s all art and no work?”

At kiddush (the post synagogue social-hour), I overhear a parent talking about P.S. 145 positively. I am thrilled. As we talk, though, it turns out she is only considering the pre-K. “I would never send her there for elementary school.”

While out sledding, my daughter befriends a Upper West Success Academy student. Her dad tells me that he’s concerned about the amount of homework at the charter school, but they didn’t want to send her to a school with no homework, and while there were some OK public schools in Harlem, where they lived, he didn’t want his daughter to be the only white kid. “Why not?” I ask. I really want to know — after all, that might well be the situation for my daughter — and when choosing a school, I thought all questions were on the table. All of a sudden though, it got cold and everyone decided to go their separate ways without addressing the question. I had killed the conversation.

After more and more school visits, my husband and I narrowed down our options to P.S. 145 and Beit Rabban, a progressive, private Jewish school that we also fell in love with. Of course, as a Jewish school, Beit Rabban had limited diversity, but it offered an outstanding Jewish and general education. We knew everyone there. And yet.

A rabbinic colleague of mine suggested sending my daughter to public school — there was no loss for us if it didn’t work for our family and we switched to Beit Rabban further along, which was what happened (at a different Jewish school) for her family. She had also felt strongly about public education, but it wasn’t right for her son. That sounded sensible enough, but before committing, I wanted to meet P.S. 145’s principal, Dr. Russo, who hadn’t been on the tour.

My husband and I arrived and sat at a large table in her office. I noted a sign reading, “I’m silently judging your grammar.” Snarky meme though it may have been, it spoke to me.  I mentioned that I liked it to break the ice. “Me too,” she said. “Most people don’t, though.”

We sat awkwardly looking at each other. She seemed so much younger and more serious than I was expecting.  Also, she didn’t seem to have a pitch. “So … what brings you here?” she asked. “We are prospective parents, and we wanted to know whether this school would be a good fit for our daughter,” I prompted her. “What would you like to know?” she asked. I was panicking. This was bad. At this point, we had seen so many eager-to-please-and-run-to-their-next-meeting principals that this was a stark contrast. My husband started with some softball questions, then I got more detailed. Soon enough, she took the lead, and laid out an impressive vision for a school that could meet the needs of children from all economic backgrounds, including those in temporary housing. She talked about how class sizes were intentionally kept small, and how she used a discretionary budget to have a long term substitute as a second teacher in the already small classrooms. She talked about continuing education for teachers. She said all the teachers knew all the students. On top of that, there was time every Tuesday for parents to meet with their children’s teachers. I was impressed that she had planned and implemented so many positive initiatives.

We enrolled my daughter in the public school across the street. I am not going to pretend to know I have made the right decision. No one making a match for a four-year-old should have the hubris to believe they know for sure. And I recognize that I hold a tremendous amount of privilege to have the certainty of a private school Plan B if anything, including supplementary Jewish education, isn’t working right for our child.

One thing I am pretty confident about? I’ve spent more time inside P.S. 145 than the finance lawyer who was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I feel like it would almost be malpractice to send my kids to school” there.

And as I saw a group of kids and teachers make their way from the school into Silver Moon Bakery for a kitchen tour, it seemed the loveliest thing to imagine my daughter joining them and exploring the world around her.

Mia Simring is a rabbi living in her native New York City, where she and her husband are raising two fourth-generation New Yorkers.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.