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What Schools Could Be

In my column last week I wrote about how frustrating it is that so much of my education advocacy work focuses on trying to fight off many of the disastrous changes being imposed upon schools in New York City. While I believe passionately that reforms like accountability in the form of high-stakes tests and the conversion of public school space into privately managed charters (www.waitingforsupermantruth.org) will do great harm to our public school system, in no way do I feel that schools in New York should be left as is. Like most educators I know that our schools could be incredible places of learning, but I also know that it would take a genuine commitment to real reforms to make that happen.

Last week I gave a list of my top four reforms that I feel could truly transform our public schools. Each one connects deeply to my own experiences as an educator in a system where one’s desire to have a positive effect is sometimes frustrated by factors outside of one’s own control. Below is an explanation of the first two, which may seem obvious but are in no way a current reality for most New York City schools. I’ll follow up with the second two next week.

School environments that are deeply engaging and invigorating places in which to spend time. This probably seems like an obvious one, but if you are a teacher or student in the New York City public schools, odds are pretty good you understand why this is a critical goal that most schools are not close to meeting.

There are quite a few ways this could come into place. Right now the only afterschool programs offered in my school are sports (which very few students take advantage of), and Regents exam tutoring. Students have complained about the fact that there is nothing going on in the afternoon, but there is little funding for after school programs and no incentive for the administration to pay for it. I can only imagine the type of activities that could be happening every day if there were funding that was specifically tied to extracurricular programs.

There should also be more interesting programs going on during the school day, or planned throughout the year. With the budget as it is, almost every teacher is teaching a full load of classes with three lessons to plan each day. This leaves little time for coordinating other school-wide programs that could be an incredible benefit to our youth. At the moment I am coordinating a number of student programs like the Keystone Youth Summit and the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program. Most of the work to organize these programs is done during my free periods and after school on my own time, which is difficult for me to manage and not necessarily sustainable long-term. Many of the teachers in my school have families and young children to go home to at the end of the day and so cannot take on these types of projects outside of the school day to such a great extent, but if we had the funding to hire more teachers we could both reduce class sizes and give teachers the time in their day to work on projects that would make school a more interesting and engaging place to be a learner. I can only imagine how much worse these issues will become if Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed layoffs and budget cuts go into effect.

In fact, there are two teachers in my school who only teach four classes in the day because they have significant school responsibilities that take up a great deal of time: our testing coordinators.

And of course, curriculum could be much more culturally relevant and engaging than it currently is. This would mean allowing teachers the freedom (gasp!) to be creative in what they teach and responsive to their students’ needs and interests. What students experience in the classroom should be be related to their lives. Again, the excessive focus on standardized testing makes this type of creativity difficult, but it is only when we make creating these types of school environments a priority that we will see them come into existence.

Finally, there is the well-known truth that most schools offer little more than the basic requirements, meaning that elective courses are rare. For most schools this is a question of human resources and funding, because hiring teachers to teach non-required courses is an expense that most schools cannot prioritize. At the moment my school only offers art classes to students in the 10th grade, with no music or dance classes at all. And though we are an environmentally themed school, we do not offer any courses related to environmental sustainability.

Schools, classes and curriculum where teachers have the support and resources that they need. This means well-funded community schools for all students, and because our schools are underfunded as they are, cutting school-based budgets as Mayor Bloomberg has proposed is clearly quite the opposite. It means textbooks and computer labs and all the things we think of when we imagine a well-funded school in which teachers have all the resources necessary to teach their classes well.

And this vision of schooling also means a significant focus on reducing class size and implementing supportive rather than punitive administration policies. Recently I was pondering the incredible difference the addition of six students into one of my classes made in terms of my ability to differentiate and touch base with each student every day. My class went from 22 students to 28, and I know that there are students who I am not able to work with as closely as I could before.

Better resources would also translate to more students passing their courses, and not just because teachers are under pressure to pass them whether or not they have learned the material. I remember when my school administrators held a meeting about teachers’ passing rates. She said, “I’m not asking you to pass students who don’t deserve to pass. I’m asking you to find ways to help more of your students learn so that they deserve to pass your class.” I am lucky enough to be in a school with administrators who take this perspective, although I have heard the horror stories of principals who demand that teachers pass students who have learned very little in their classes.

Helping students learn is a teacher’s job, and in my case helping my seniors learn is at the moment synonymous with making daily phone calls home about poor attendance in eighth period. This type of work translates to a question of time, resources, and engagement; I have struggled to keep students engaged in that eighth-period class after they took the CUNY assessment exam, for which the class was intended to prepare them.

In the end it comes down to a question of priorities, both in funding and in the focus of our reforms. A lot of money, time, research and human resources are going into the reforms like closing schools and opening new ones, which those on the ground know is often devastating to communities. Instead of investing in these kind of tactics, our society could be choosing to prioritize and invest in strengthening the educational environments in the schools we have. Right now those in charge of the education system in this city and nationally are forcing schools and administrators to prioritize and spend a great deal of resources on factors related to standardized testing or else risk their very livelihoods. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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.

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