I know a 15-year-old that has seen somebody die. Some of my students have seen their siblings shot on the street in cold blood, or handcuffed and taken to jail. Some of my students have been arrested themselves. They watch their parents break their backs to make rent, or pay the electric bill, or feed their families. (Many students find it difficult to do homework when their homes don’t have electricity, or on an empty stomach.)
Many of my students have experienced (and continue to experience) all of these things. They are 15. I can count on two fingers— not even a hand — the number of people close to me who had died or been arrested by the time I was 15. Back then, my biggest worry was learning how to record “The X-Files” correctly onto VHS. My students, on the other hand, have much more to worry about.
I have learned this after two months of working at a school in South Bronx. I am a teaching assistant in large classes in the Bronx through a program called Blue Engine, where we partner with district schools and their teachers to build closer relationships with high school students. Blue Engine’s goal, which GothamSchools covered last year, is to dramatically increase academic rigor in the classroom. We want to tackle a growing issue in New York City schools: that we can get many kids to college, but not through college. In fact, the current remediation rate at CUNY schools for New York City residents is 70 percent. That means that 70 percent of city high school graduates that go on to college are not prepared for the rigor and expectations of CUNY classes. They take remedial courses for zero credit, pay full tuition, and take on heaps of loans. It’s no surprise that within six years 51 percent of CUNY students drop out.
The goal of Blue Engine is to increase academic rigor so that students are college-ready — whether or not they will actually end up going to college. The idea is that the skills that make up college-readiness are crucial for students to have because they give students choices.
The core of the Blue Engine model — and what ultimately drew me towards applying for the BETA position in late winter, when it seemed that I wasn’t a good fit for many other straight-out-of-college teacher prep programs — is the way that it re-envisions the classroom. By dividing classes of 34 into small groups of seven (one for each Blue Engine Teaching Assistant, or BETA), we can differentiate more effectively, build stronger relationships with students faster, and more closely track students’ academic and socio-emotional behavior. The lead teacher gives the mini-lessons and plans the curriculum while we help execute instruction in small groups and monitor independent practice. In a classroom of 34, it’s so easy for a child to fall through the cracks. But in a Blue Engine classroom, the stakes are rigged in the student’s favor.
In the first two weeks of school, for example, one BETA at my school observed that one of her ninth-grade students who sat in the back of the room never participated and seemed not care about homework. She realized that he was an English language learner and knew very little English. His native language is Arabic, a language that nobody else in the school speaks. Almost immediately she began meeting with him after school and helping him not only to learn basic English skills but also to develop strategies for success in his other non-English classes (e.g. providing an English-to-Arabic glossary for key words he would see frequently in his math class).
While that BETA took on this challenge, I was struggling with one of my students who was suspended in the second week of a school for three days (which was a full week, due to days off). At the beginning of his suspension, he told me, “I’m going to transfer schools at the end of the year.” In my free time, however, I was able to conference with him and the social worker during my lunch hour, spend time with him every day after school, keep him caught up on the homework, and then help him transition into the classroom routine upon his return this past week. I asked him on his first day back if he still wanted to switch schools. He replied, “Naw, I changed my mind.” A lead teacher alone with 120 students would be hard-pressed to have found time to do all this.
These things are not spectacular. We know that these interventions can be found in every classroom. But the difference is that in our classrooms, there are five times as many interventions happening per day, and they are happening months earlier than they would in a traditional classroom. The 1:7 ratio is crucial for these students because when they count the number of people they know who have died or been arrested they run out of fingers on their hands. They have been through so much, more than any 15-year-old should have to deal with, and because of this I believe they need closer attention, more positive role models, and stronger teacher-to-student (as well as peer-to-peer) relationships. That 1:7 ratio is the key to building towards these goals over the course of the year.
In addition, this year Blue Engine will be piloting a new “social cognition” curriculum at our schools where we will be explicitly teaching non-cognitive skills. We will teach students about goal-setting, how the brain works, how people learn, and how to accept failure and keep trying. This is a lofty goal, but I hope to scaffold my way there by integrating the “social cog” curriculum into other classes whenever possible. I will give a play-by-play over the course of the year about how my students respond to the explicit instruction of these non-cognitive skills, and what this could mean for their futures.
Hopefully, it means that they will come away from high school with more than just knowledge. I remember when I went off to college, I decided to leave all my “X-Files” episodes at home. It was natural, something that I had grown out of. Just as easily, we can grow out of most of our high-school experiences — the friends we made, the identity we carved out, and most of the things we learned.
I don’t know where my students will be going when they graduate high school, nor do I know what they will be taking with them. But I hope to give them something more substantial than the definition of a “motif,” something more meaningful than a basic knowledge of algebra — I want them to have choices.
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.