First Person

I taught at a nonselective New York City school. Your assumptions about low-scoring students are wrong.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

It’s a modest proposal: Each middle school in New York City’s District 3 would offer a quarter of its seats to students who haven’t passed state exams. The plan, currently being debated, is supported by many district principals and parents. But not all. One mother said, with great emotion:

“You’re talking about an 11-year-old who worked her butt off and … didn’t get what you needed or wanted. You’re telling them you’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks! Is that what the DOE wants to say?”

I’m now an instructional coach for the education department, but I spent nearly 30 years teaching in private and public schools in New York City and raised two children here. So I’ve heard similar talk before. And in my experience, statements like that are based on unexamined and frankly wrong assumptions about children, merit, and schools.

The worried mother assumes that higher test scores prove her daughter worked harder, and is thus more deserving, than children with slightly lower scores. In fact, thousands of New York City’s children experience the disappointment of not getting into top schools, even though they’ve worked hard and are smart and talented. But their parents don’t have money for tutoring, time to go on school tours during the work day, or the connections or ZIP code to successfully target selective middle schools which feed into selective high schools.

The fact that parents at that meeting mentioned spending $5,000 on tutoring so that their children can “earn” a seat in a highly screened school underscores that point. What is it that children of wealthy parents have earned that kids who score a level 2 on the state exam with no extra help have not?

Another assumption is about schools. We give enormous credit to schools whose students arrived there already reading at grade level. But that doesn’t say anything about the quality of teaching or outcomes. The mother’s certainty that any school but their top choice “won’t educate you in the way you’ve been educated” raises many questions.

I taught for years in an unscreened middle and high school, which means most of my students had scored 1 or 2 on the state exams. In spite of this apparently dire situation, we had graduation and college acceptance rates over 90 percent. Students went to Barnard, Cornell, Colby, Bates, and many other schools that were good fits for them, because we prioritized college counseling and strong advisory relationships.

I took seniors to Washington, D.C., to lobby their Congress members about the Patriot Act. (The students led the meetings, and one senator’s staffer confessed to knowing less about the Bill of Rights than my students.) All of this was invisible to many parents who reduced the entire human enterprise to a judgment based on how many students scored above a 2 on the state exams.

The author with students in the Senate building several years ago.

Another parent asked whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if students with lower scores are admitted. I am always in favor of resources and support for teachers! But the implication that kids who aren’t passing exams will be disruptive elements or fundamentally different than his son is also misguided. I can tell you absolutely that students who score highly on state exams can be just as challenging and difficult in the classroom as those who score below grade level.

It is true that when schools are filled entirely with children who are very poor, the school will likely need additional resources and strong leadership to be effective. Adversity, poverty, and unstable housing all create conditions that can get in the way of optimal learning. But 25 percent of children scoring below a 3 on state exams is not that.

I understand how emotional this process can be. I’ve gone through the process with my children, and even broke out in shingles the first time we went through the high school admissions process.

When my oldest son turned five in 1997, we were zoned for P.S. 321 in Park Slope — then, as now, a school people forge address paperwork to get into. Instead I sent him to Brooklyn New School because it had then a structural guarantee of integration: an admissions lottery to result in one-third Latinx, one-third black, and one-third white and other students. I’d taught in schools with few students of color and seen the heavy burden of representation they had to carry. The world, and New York City, is not majority white, and I wanted them to live in reality, not in an constructed enclave.

I then began teaching at Brooklyn New School and at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, the 6-12 school in the same building. My son moved up to BCS; like most unscreened secondary schools, it was poorer and had more black and brown students than his elementary school had. My son loved his years at BCS, and I loved teaching there.

Wrapped up in the talk of scores and hard work and other kids taking “our” kids’ seats is the unspoken content of those parents’ objections: race. Many white parents are uncomfortable being in the minority, even though they absolutely are a minority in New York City’s public schools. If we can’t talk about that, we can’t ever talk about diversity honestly. And that means we can’t really talk about admissions policies and test scores, either, because they serve as proxies for racial inequities.

Let’s be clear: state exams don’t assess character or intellectual potential. One of my sons can get a top score with little effort. The other gets no love from standardized tests. They both, just like all New York City children, deserve access to the opportunities a real city offers, vibrant and mixed and full of all kinds of interconnected, talented human beings.

Public schools are a collective good; we must ensure that the benefits are shared equitably.

Vicki Madden is an instructional coach for New York City schools and a committed New Yorker who has taught English and history since 1985.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s coverage of the District 3 desegregation debate here. Stay up to date by signing up for our daily newsletter

harlem renaissance

After a battle to integrate middle schools, parents turn their attention to Harlem

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Genisha Metcalf, center right, and Dennis Morgan, far left, are among the parents at P.S. 180 who are leading a grassroots effort to boost Harlem schools.

Along a stretch of brick wall at P.S. 180 Hugo Newman, a massive mural proclaims “Young, gifted, and Harlem.”

The sunny new painting at the K-8 school, which was donated by a local artist, is not the typical volunteer effort. It’s part of a push by parent leaders and city officials to boost Harlem schools — the crucial next step toward making a new, contentious integration plan work.

The education department this summer approved changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 3, an effort to spur diversity in a deeply segregated district that spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. The fight to get it approved captured national attention, but the admissions changes may have been the easy part.

Students there are still free to apply to their choice of middle schools, so demographics won’t shift at many schools unless families make different decisions about where to send their children. For Harlem, that means competing for students with schools that have far more resources and are in strong demand with middle-class parents.

That’s why, in the coming year, the district will undertake a “visioning” campaign for Harlem with the aim of floating plans to meet the schools’ needs while canvassing the community to find out what families want. There are also on-the-ground efforts, like those being led by parents at P.S. 180, to paint a more positive picture of Harlem schools.

“This isn’t just about what we’ve heard before: ‘Harlem schools are struggling,’ and that older narrative,” said Dennis Morgan, a parent on the local Community Education Council whose children attend P.S. 180. “There are actually really, really informed parents, [and] really, really, talented and gifted children here — that are more than what the narrative speaks to.”

The plan

District 3 families apply to middle schools rather than being zoned to one based on their address. Despite that wide degree of choice, the district is segregated: Booker T. Washington enrolls almost 70 percent white and Asian students; The district average is 40 percent. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, virtually all of the students are black or Hispanic.  

Beginning next year, middle schools will give admissions preference for a quarter of seats to students with low test scores and poor report card grades, and who come from low-income families. That could result in more racial diversity in some schools since academic performance and poverty are often linked to race and ethnicity.

But the admissions priority will only make a difference if schools have a diverse group of applicants to pull from. Today, many do not.  

Based on a simulation of admissions offers, patterned on how families applied to schools last year, many Harlem schools would remain essentially unchanged by the integration plan.

The projections show that P.S. 076 A. Philip Randolph, a K-8 school on 121st Street, would see its demographics remain basically the same. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts, a Harlem school that narrowly survived an attempt to shut it down this year, would admit about one more high-performing student. Both would still serve mostly students who struggled on state tests and come from low-income families.

The biggest changes would be seen outside of Harlem, where more low-performing students would get admitted to some of the district’s most sought-after schools.

For parents on the local education council, which for years has pushed the education department to address segregation in its middle schools, the admissions changes alone were problematic: They mean that more Harlem students will likely be leaving their neighborhood schools, but the plan did nothing to address why parents aren’t picking those schools in the first place.

“That does nothing for investing in these schools,” said Genisha Metcalf, a parent on the education council whose daughter attends P.S. 180.

The work ahead

Harlem faces intense competition for students from the more selective schools to its south, and charters in its own backyard.

Students who passed state tests cram into a few schools on the Upper West Side that use tough admissions criteria. Meanwhile, Harlem is home to 10 of the district’s 11 charter schools. A recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that 63 percent of Harlem families enroll in schools outside the neighborhood.

When students leave, they take crucial funding with them since school budgets are based on enrollment. Three Harlem schools had fewer than 200 students last year.

“We have to focus on what it’s going to take for kids to enroll in these schools,” said Kim Watkins, a member of the Community Education Council. “We’ve got to start listening to the community and working with the various stakeholders… to make sure we understand what it is we need to offer.”

That’s the next phase of the district’s integration plans. With the middle school admissions changes in effect, the city is now weighing ways to boost enrollment in Harlem schools. Among the possibilities: Opening new pre-K classes in the neighborhood; eliminating the zoning around P.S. 241, a science and technology school; and opening a standalone middle school since Harlem is almost exclusively served by K-8 campuses.

The city is also looking at ways to make school offerings more equitable across the district, promising to implement more rigorous Regents math and science courses in every middle school and to expand tutoring options.

Before the city makes any moves, though, officials are fanning across the district to listen to parent feedback and partner with local organizations to hear concerns and collect new ideas.

“We know there’s real work to do to strengthen programming in Harlem and across District 3, and we’re excited to partner with the community, including principals, parent leaders, and families, on the Harlem visioning process,” education department spokesmanDoug Cohen said in an emailed statement.  

Already, some ideas are percolating among Community Education Council members.

Morgan wants to partner with local business and has called on the district to devise ways to share dramatically lopsided PTA fundraising — a move that has been met with fierce opposition elsewhere. While some Harlem schools struggle to raise budgets in the hundreds of dollars, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report last year by the Center for American Progress. The school raised $1.6 million, according to the report.

“That’s the place where this resourcing gap gets closed,” Morgan said.

Perhaps the more difficult work ahead, though, is shifting parents’ perceptions so they’ll pick Harlem schools. The fight to approve the admissions changes shows how far parent leaders have to go.

In public meetings to float the integration plans, one concern was repeated over and over again: Middle class parents argued there were only a few “good” schools in the district, and they worried the city’s plans would make it harder for their children to enroll in those schools. None of the most sought-after schools, which receive a crush of applications each year, are in Harlem.

Metcalf sat in many of those meetings and was irked by the way her neighborhood schools were portrayed. It went against her experience at P.S. 180, a school where she said parents are involved and the staff are dedicated.

So when artist Ronald Draper donated his talent to produce an original work for the district, Metcalf brainstormed with Harlem parents and educators to come up with something that would send that message. The piece spans about 50 feet, with the neighborhood defined by the people who live there. In a corner, Draper described Harlem as an adjective: “to shine bright.”

“We wanted something that was loud and proud,” Metcalf said. “It was like: What’s something that’s really representative of every single student in not only this building, but in Harlem?”

In addition to their massive new mural, Metcalf has printed out postcards that tout the school’s hydroponics lab, dual language classes, and music program — another piece of a grassroots campaign to highlight what’s already working in the neighborhood’s schools.

Parent leaders have been calling for more attention to be paid to Harlem schools for some time now. A similar integration battle, over the rezoning of some district elementary schools, led the education council to plan a “Harlem Summit,” which turned into an annual informational event for the area’s parents.

This time, the district is armed with a state grant that provides training and guidance around school integration issues. There is another crucial difference: The local Community Education Council now includes parents like Metcalf and Morgan, who send their children to Harlem schools. For them, the work is personal.

“I care about all kids, but this is my kid’s future,” Metcalf said.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.