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Conversation of the week: Participating in a controversial policy

Some of our most thought-provoking comments this week came in response to a first person account of starting a new school in the GothamSchools Community section.

In his post, teacher Stephen Lazar described his inner conflict over helping to start Harvest Collegiate High School this year. He believed in the new school, he wrote, but he knew that it would occupy space vacated by a school that was being closed. That school is Legacy High School, a struggling small school that will share its building space with Harvest in Union Square until it finished phasing out.

Lazar chose to join Harvest’s founding team, but still, he said, the question stymied him: Should a teacher help create a new school if he objects to the policy that led to its creation?

Commenters were divided in their answers.

“Former Turnaround Teacher” said that Lazar’s discomfort about his participation in the city’s reform effort is a common among educators at new schools and phase-out schools:

When I was looking to transfer at the end of the past school year I often faced a similar decision. I could not bring myself to apply to certain schools that I know where in current phase out buildings. However I did apply to some schools in buildings that had finished phasing out. When it comes down to it, in the current system unless you are lucky enough to get into the 20% or so of High Schools that are either specilized or the DOE for whatever…

Two commenters said they worked at Legacy High School, said Department of Education officials and Harvest Collegiate community members created a “hierarchy” that privileged the new school. Both schools share space in a Union Square building.

“Former Legacy Teacher” wrote:

The unspoken thing about starting a new school is the hierarchy of the new school over the closing school. As a veteran teacher, I have been through two school closings, my second being Legacy, and the snobbery that the kids and teachers of the closing school experience by the kids, teachers, and administration of the new school is extremely damaging. There is this idea by the new teachers and students that the closing school members are defective, that they failed. Everyone may say that they are supportive and don’t judge but it happens. I’ve overheard teachers and students at the new schools talk down about the closing school. I’ve been told by new school members how they aren’t going to make the mistakes of the failing school. It’s amazing to me the hubris, as you put it, that people have when opening a new school, how sure they are that they won’t fail.

And “Cave-Dweller,” a commenter who identified as a Legacy teacher also expressed concerns about the divide, and how some Legacy students and teachers don’t feel the school is being adequately supported by the department:

Our students have separate water fountains and bathrooms even though it would be far easier for our students to use the “Harvest Fountains”. Security makes sure that our students walk upstairs to the “Legacy fountains and restrooms”. As one student said, “Wow, did anyone see that movie about the Civil Rights movement with the separate fountains? This is just like that.”

Harvest does not speak to, greet, or often acknowledge Legacy staff. And before someone tells me about my prejudice. I have tried several times to at least have the elevator not feel like a ride up to prison. Sometimes they will speak to a student but this usual comes with ignoring the adult next to them.

My kids know and feel what’s happening. They see how Harvest and Legacy are separated; they feel looked down upon from the Harvest Community.

Lazar responded that he had heard a couple of students make negative comments about Legacy, and would bring this concern to school leaders and community members.

“Juggleandhope” offered Lazar words of support:

I agree with you that all our work involves ethical compromises and prioritization (and not just with NYCDOE but any work within a system of exploitation on what is literally blood-soaked (and gratefully rain-washed) land). I also agree with your point that the dynamics of learning (and implicitly, actual experience) should be our focus rather than just the container politics (thanks for that word). And I share your hope that your thoughtful and creative pedagogical relationships can make a big difference for some students (and adults) and that you can ameliorate the disheartening dynamics between the Legacy and Harvest students and staff. Looking forward to further thoughtful posts about your work.

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