how we got here

First Person: My local school didn’t teach my son the way I hoped it would. To tackle segregation, we need to talk about that, too

PHOTO: Reena Shah
The author's son.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” struck a chord. “This city has made integration the hardest choice,” she writes. Unfortunately, as both a parent and a teacher, I know that is true.

New York City schools are not just segregated by race and class, but also divided by pedagogy — how teaching and learning happens in a classroom. What often goes undiscussed is how how parents from different backgrounds often hold different beliefs about what learning should look like and choose schools accordingly, yet another factor fueling school segregation.

I spent years teaching in schools where most students came from low-income families and were black or Hispanic. I fought against the narrow and sometimes joyless approach to basic skill development that many school officials promoted as the best way to bridge the achievement gap. Even before I was a mother, I often asked myself if I would want my child sitting in my own classroom.

Still, there are pedagogical silos in New York, and the skill-and-drill approach is more prevalent among schools that serve mostly low-income families. As the city begins a few efforts meant to better integrate its schools, families and educators need to talk more about our often starkly different ideas about what makes a school “good.”

When Hannah-Jones and her husband chose P.S. 307, a school outside of their zone, she writes that she was fueled by her desire to play a part in integrating that school economically. She was also influenced by seeing that students there played musical instruments, had access to an advanced science and technology program, and benefitted from the school’s strong leadership.

My own story of choosing a school for my child is complicated and marked by some of the same impulses, though it didn’t work out the same way.

My son attended pre-kindergarten in a school that largely serves low-income students, especially in the upper elementary grades. We started the school year intending for him to remain there as long as our family stayed in the neighborhood. We liked the principal and thought it was important to support our zoned school — that such actions were in line with our ideals.

My child had a warm teacher who he loved, but the classroom environment proved to be a challenge. Though his teacher was aiming for a play-based environment guided by children’s questions, as a new teacher, she understandably struggled to set expectations for children’s behavior, and I wasn’t sure she was getting the support she needed.

The school was also still working out what kind of instruction it wanted to see. While some classrooms, like the science lab, showed signs of active use with meaningful student work on the walls, others showed few signs of what children were actually creating and working on. Looking ahead to kindergarten, I became increasingly concerned about the amount of time such young children spent filling in worksheets, the early introduction of homework, and the school’s preoccupation with testing.

Unlike Hannah-Jones’s description of her daughter during her first year in school, my son was not flourishing. By the spring, he no longer wanted to go to school.

I was torn, because I valued the school’s sense of community, the music program, and the administration’s openness to parents. But for my child, who often had difficulty focusing, the teaching practices weren’t working.

I eventually secured a seat for him at the school where I also ultimately took a job, a decision that left me relieved but also conflicted. Had my son’s experience been more positive, our choice would have been different. But when your child would benefit from a different kind of teaching, what are the right decisions then?

Of course, having the resources and knowledge to even ask this question has become a privilege in New York City, where navigating the system can easily become a full-time job. While many schools talk about their progressive practices, their interpretations range from children deciding on their own units of study to the repetitive skill-and-drill activities used by many large charter networks. Parents are asked to figure out what school environment will be best for their children amid a flurry of conflicting information.

This year, the Department of Education has allowed seven public schools, including the one where I work, to embark on a pilot program that alters admissions to promote integration. The program is a good thing, and has already diversified the incoming kindergarten classes.

These efforts also make it even more important to find ways to talk about what families expect. Some will want more recess. Some want more structure. Some want to take the state tests and others don’t. Some want to see more reading and writing in kindergarten, others find this developmentally inappropriate, and still others are unsure. These differences are shaped by our own experiences in school systems, our aspirations for our children, our backgrounds, and, in some cases, our individual children and their needs, strengths, and challenges.

Other assumptions about what makes a school good are destructive, especially the idea that the affluence of a school’s families can serve as marker of its quality. Hannah-Jones points to a few disturbing ideas voiced by parents who were rezoned from P.S. 8, the wealthy Brooklyn Heights school, to P.S. 307. Several parents seemed to believe that when a school serves poor children, that school is compromised and not as safe — a gross generalization.

Yet, for school integration to be successful, we have to find ways to talk about what does matter: our beliefs about what teaching and learning should look like in our children’s classrooms. We have to be willing to engage in these discussions as parents and educators without feeling defensive about what we believe to be right. We have to decide when advocating for our own child could support other children, and when it is potentially at the expense of other children. Once we learn how to do that, New York will be closer to having more integrated schools.

This post is part of a new series we’re calling How We Got Here, explaining how students and families chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. Interested in contributing? Email us here.

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.