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The Kids Nobody Wants

It’s scary when schools close. No reasonable person wants to see that happen. But look at the closing schools and you’ll notice they all have certain things in common. The one that really stands out is the large population of students with special needs. Now don’t take this the wrong way — I make my living teaching kids like that, and I adore them for the most part.

But whose fault is it, really, if it takes my kids longer to graduate? I mean, most kids pass my beginning English classes. I always hope to pass 100 percent of my students, and I sometimes come very close. But when I see a kid who came from Korea 18 days ago carrying around a two-inch thick biology text, I’m not optimistic. How on earth is that kid gonna differentiate between enzymes and hormones? I just spent 10 minutes showing him the difference between “kitchen” and “chicken,” and I count myself lucky he got that far.

Unfortunately, school report cards are serious business nowadays. And don’t fool yourself into thinking they mirror report cards your kids get. If my kid, for example, came home with a D, it might be a long time before she’d see her iPod again. Of course it’s well known that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Chancellor Klein sent their kids to public schools. That’s probably for the best, because if they had, and their kids brought home Ds, it’s entirely conceivable they’d have been tossed onto the streets and replaced with 3 or 4 smaller kids, just as they replace D-rated schools with 3 or 4 smaller ones.

Yet new small schools are unlikely to take the kids who pull down the all-important graduation rates. Queens Collegiate is a shiny new school on the third floor of closure-slated Jamaica High School. Jamaica’s UFT chapter leader, James Eterno, told me that when Queens Collegiate got a special education/ESL student it wasn’t equipped to handle, they sent the kid right back downstairs to Jamaica. 

Some schools, like mine (Francis Lewis High School) take kids we know won’t graduate — they’re on track for “alternate assessment” instead of academic diplomas. And every one of these kids — about 2 percent of our total population — is counted against us when they fail to achieve a traditional graduation. You might say they are dropouts on the day they enroll.

Have we failed these kids? We’ve sent them to programs where they train for jobs they can do when they get out of high school. Isn’t that a good thing? According to the metrics that closed 19 schools this year, it’s of no value whatsoever. I’d argue that preparing kids to support themselves is of far more value than preparing them to pass a Regents exam. But Joel Klein’s Tweed gives little or no weight to the arguments of teachers.

Francis Lewis got an A last year, by the skin of our teeth. Actually, our ESL kids did well and earned us extra credit, bless their souls. But I know, whether or not our kids helped us out, we are a great school, overcoming enormous odds, all of which are dumped on us by the wholly indifferent Department of Education. They would close us tomorrow with just as much ease as they take credit for our accomplishments today.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew told me, “They send high-needs kids to other schools with no strategy to help them.” And that’s absolutely true. Everyone, whether or not they admit it, now sees the shell game that the school closings have become. Close Far Rockaway and move the kids to Beach Channel. Close Beach Channel and send them over the bridge to somewhere else. Close all the large high schools, doomed to failure by the deliberate shuffle of difficult kids, and turn them over to the next schools on the firing line. When they run out, close the new schools and start newer ones.

Meanwhile, why would city principals want these kids? They’re a drag on their statistics. And in today’s DOE, statistics are all that counts. 

But it takes a few years to learn English, and it’s entirely unreasonable to expect kids to pass biology before they do that. My kids will learn English. They’re as smart as anyone else. But they need a little time. That’s a simple fact, and we shouldn’t be penalized for preparing kids for a better future. It beats the hell out of Joel Klein’s apparent policy of shuffling them off somewhere else and hoping for the best.

So, again, why would any principal want ESL, special ed, or alternate assessment kids? DOE policy appears tailor-made to penalize those of us who take on the second toughest educational challenge there is-helping the kids who cannot reasonably be expected to get Regents diplomas in four years. 

The toughest educational challenge, of course, would be getting Joel Klein to do what’s best for children. Since that will never happen, we can only focus on overcoming Tweed’s stranglehold on mainstream media. It’s contract time, and the tabloids are busily dispensing nonsense designed to tar all teachers for the alleged sins of a few. Were they targeting an ethnicity rather than a profession, people would see them for the bigots they are. 

Meanwhile, who’s speaking up for those of us who embrace our most challenging kids? Schools taking on these kids ought to be rewarded. Under Joel Klein’s stewardship, they are dumped onto the scrap heap. The same could be said for these kids, left without neighborhood schools, and without Metrocards to get them wherever Tweed sees fit to send them.

These kids deserve better. Their neighborhoods deserve better. And it appears New York City is waking up to that fact. Joel Klein knows it, and that’s why he didn’t wait till 6 a.m. to close schools yesterday. Will that fool New Yorkers into believing he’s got their interests at heart?

Not this time. That ship sailed on January 26th, when he chose to ignore Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and every single speaker who came to the PEP meeting.And much as the mayor and chancellor might wish otherwise, neither they nor the local tabloids will be able to ignore the joint school-closing related lawsuit of the UFT and the NAACP. This suit, of course, comes directly on the heels of the one protesting the city’s consistent failure to deal with class size, despite having accepted hundreds of millions for that very purpose.

These lawsuits will help show the public once and for all who really cares about the education of these kids-and make no mistake-those people are UFT teachers in neighborhood schools.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.