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Preach Like A Champion

This column is about those of us who abhor AYP, avoid IMPACT, won’t SLANT or SPORT, don’t “Do Now,” and wriggle when you hear “rigor,” “relentless pursuit,” “high-performing,” “low-performing,” “work hard, be nice,” and “mastery.”

My name is Mark Fusco. I love teaching. The buzzwords of “no excuses,” data-driven school reform don’t resonate with someone like me, whose inspiration to enter the classroom came from watching my mother, a lifelong teacher, instruct a class of students with disabilities during the summer before I started kindergarten. I learned by her example that acronyms and test scores were not what stayed with the children, but rather their transformative education came from my mother’s profound love and her commitment to helping students discover their individual talents and intelligences.

I am distressed because it appears that my mother’s brand of education is becoming increasingly devalued in our current educational and political climate. I work at a charter school where I am happy, but I am concerned by what I see in the prevalent trends of charter schools in New York City and nationally. First, I see an almost monomanical focus on high-stakes testing. Second the CEOs of the fastest growing charter management networks, such as Harlem Success Academy, are predominantly white, upper-class men and women who I suspect do not fully understand the communities and kids they serve. Many of these leaders seem to resist any collaboration with the neighborhoods their schools are in and the families who depend on them.

I have been working in education in New York for several years. I volunteered with 826 NYC. I worked for Harlem Children’s Zone’s after school program. I left for a year to get my masters in education at Harvard. I am now embarking on my second year as an 11th–grade English teacher at Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. I’m thankful that Hyde stands apart from most charters. The theme of my school is social justice, a label rarely worn with pride in these times when schools are not measured by the content of their character but by the strength of their test scores.

In my first year I helped pen the school’s definition of social justice. We defined it as a four-step process (1. Recognize Oppression, 2. Show Concern for Oppression, 3. Research the Underlying Reasons for Oppression, 4. Take Leadership, Take Action). I co-founded a social justice committee that provokes teachers and students to engage in this process inside and outside of their classrooms. The English class I taught was called Social Justice in the South Bronx and Beyond. We made community partnerships, debated our state senator, and won the “Most Enthusiastic” medal for students’ research papers on the topic of poverty at the annual Social Justice Exposition held by the New York Collective of Radical Educators.

As the first week of school begins, I think about the lives of our students and colleagues and the myriad narratives and subplots that made my first year so rewarding, exhausting, and life-altering. This year will be a challenge to step up my involvement in social justice projects so I can truly practice what I preach. This column will relate to you my personal journey to take on that challenge and help redirect the school reform movement from the inside.

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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