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At My “Persistently Low-Achieving” School

I work at one of the 33 schools Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated that he wants to “turn around” — or close. As part of this plan, he is also seeking to replace up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the schools, including mine.

I have worked in the same school for the past nine years. I can dismiss the sensationalistic claim from Bloomberg that 50 percent of teachers are ineffective, because it is simply not true. Likewise, when I hear defenders of educators claim that all teachers do great work, I know this is not correct either. The answer lies somewhere in between — in the case of my school, much closer to the defenders of teachers.

I want to describe the thankless service being done everyday by my colleagues and mentors. It is my hope that readers might share these personal profiles with friends, family, colleagues, and politicians to spread the word about the great work being done by educators in the schools the mayor has targeted.

At my school — labeled “persistently low-achieving” and slated for possible closure — there are several teachers with doctoral degrees. They could have pursued careers at selective high schools or even at colleges but chose to work at our school. Most have dedicated 10+ years to the school and are respected as the academic authorities in our building by both students and staff. They are able to translate their advanced content knowledge and make it relevant and exciting for our students.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there are many teachers who give up their lunches, preparation periods, weekends and vacations to work with students — for free! While this is not always a popular position with hard-line union supporters, these professionals put their students ahead of their own personal interests. Just last week, I saw teachers:

  • work an entire period with a senior on a college entrance essay, leaving the teacher with no lunch break between teaching four classes;
  • use their professional period to meet individually with seniors who are behind in credits, but hope to graduate this June;
  • come to work 45 minutes early to host a celebration recognizing students with outstanding attendance;
  • stay late on a Friday afternoon to tutor a student who needed a little extra help this marking period;
  • discuss how to differentiate instruction to reach all students in their classes during lunch; and
  • seek out other teachers for advice on effective material to use with their students.

And to think, this is just what one person witnessed in a single week — the same week that all of the teachers found out they might be losing their jobs.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — a teacher coordinates a leadership class, which has created a culture of service among an impressive portion of the student body. Students:

  • donate blood through on site blood drives, several times a year;
  • collect food, money, toys and clothing for those in need;
  • fundraise for cancer research;
  • translate for non-English speaking parents at parent/teacher conferences; and
  • host after school sessions advocating tolerance and respect.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there is a teacher who has successfully implemented a peer mediation program. Student volunteers work to help their peers resolve conflicts through discussion rather than fighting.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — I have had students who went on to attend Columbia University and Rollis College on full scholarships and law school at Temple and Georgetown universities. Some of my former students have gone into pre-med programs, and others are finishing up with teacher training programs.

And last week I received great news during this otherwise difficult time: a student in my jazz band with whom I have worked for the past three years was accepted on full scholarship to play Division I football at West Point. Another was accepted to two colleges —one on scholarship — but is waiting to hear back from her top choice.

Does this sound like a failing school?

In fact, the student attending West Point is the second student we have had in the past three years to go on to play football for a Division I school. An impressive feat for any program — and especially for ours, where the coach built a program from scratch only recently, several years after I came to the school. The coach has also helped hundreds of our athletes to improve academically; he established after-school study halls to make sure all keep up with their work.

When I found out about about my students’ achievements, I immediately found myself texting family and friends to share the great news. I also took a stroll down the halls to tell anyone who would listen. Out of nowhere, I found myself welling up with a mix of emotions.

One of my colleagues saw that I had tears in my eyes. She congratulated me on my students’ successes and gave me a hug. When she stepped back, I saw that she had begun to tear up as well.

“It’s just too bad, isn’t it?” she started. “We have such a great school with so many great students. It is sad that this may be the end of an era — the end of something that has been great for so long.”

“I think we just had an Oprah moment,” I told her.

For that moment we were able to share a much-needed laugh, at a time where there is little to laugh about.

Michael Albertson is in his ninth year teaching instrumental music at a large public high school in Queens. A version of this piece originally appeared on his blog, Urban Education: Music and Beyond.

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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