First Person

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

PHOTO: Mia Simring
The view of P.S. 145 from the author's apartment building

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 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.