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What My Struggling School Needs To Support Students

In a recent pre-closure meeting at my high school — one of 33 labeled as “persistently low-achieving” by the state — a representative of the city said that due to our low graduation rate there was no option but to place our school under “turnaround” status. I presented an argument that seems to be echoed by students, teachers and parents at other turn-around schools: “Our school has not received the support needed to improve.”

I did not receive a response from the representative.

The city’s argument that by implementing the turnaround model, which requires the school to be closed and half its teachers replaced, New York City would again be eligible for federal monies currently being withheld by State Education Commissioner John King.

I witnessed firsthand how these monies were being used last fall when we were receiving the funding. The programs implemented for the staff were not relevant: We were receiving sporadic professional development sessions from privately contracted companies on topics ranging from curriculum mapping to assessment. (These presenters, while well-intentioned, had never taught in New York City public schools.) There was a disconnect between the content being presented and the everyday realities we were facing in our classrooms.

What would more meaningful support to struggling schools like mine look like? I believe that when New York City once again receives this additional funding, the following would have the most immediate positive effect for my students:

Smaller Class Size

The maximum roster size for most high school classes in New York City public schools is 34 students (the exception being physical education and music classes — in previous years I have had music classes with 50 students). Our school has a very diverse population of learners; it is not unusual to have four or five different languages spoken by students in one class. The challenge of this culturally rich setting is that many students come to high school with drastically different educational experiences. Many attended public schools in New York for their entire lives, while others attended Catholic schools, private schools, or schools in one of dozens of different countries.

There were significant differences in the academic performance between my large classes and those with rosters between 25 and 30. Classroom management is a primary concern with a class of 50 and cuts into instructional time on a daily basis. By the time one side of the room is ready to work, the other side has lost focus. In music classes, merely distributing instruments and setting up music for this many students could take up to 10 minutes. It is not possible to provide each student with the attention that he or she deserves.

Instructional time with smaller classes is much more productive. The pace of learning is much quicker and I had time to address individual concerns; it was easier for me to keep track of each student’s progress and to reach out to those in need of extra assistance. These classes also have the flexibility to explore more supplemental materials that enhance the learning experience.

Additional Counseling Services

My school has a great counseling staff, but its members are simply overworked: Each counselor is assigned to work with several hundred students. With such overwhelming caseloads many students only see their counselors for problems with class scheduling or credit accumulation. Teachers have always played the role of part-time counselors — guiding students with a variety of academic and personal problems — but students would benefit from increased access to trained professionals.

In fact, I believe that increasing funding for counseling services might be the linchpin that is missing in the debate on reform in urban schools. Over nine years I would estimate that I have worked with between 1,500 and 1,700 students. The one thing they all have had in common is a keen intelligence. Unfortunately many are dealing with external issues that prevent them from displaying their talents on academic endeavors.

Every year there are several students in each class I teach that do not pass. However, I have never seen a student fail due to difficulty in understanding the material; these grades have always been a result of not completing the required work. For many, excessive absence is the reason; others attend but simply do not hand in the work.

In addition to counselors for programming-related issues, our schools need counselors who can assist students through social, emotional and familial problems that are curbing their learning experiences. It is unrealistic to expect a student who is homeless, hungry, or dealing with the divorce of his/her parents to come to school fully focused and prepared to learn without any special help. Some students could benefit from a few discussions with an adult other than their parents or teachers while some students need someone who can advocate for them and get them connected with the services that they need.

Services for English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs

One of the common threads among schools slated for “turnaround” by the city is that most serve a significant population of high-needs students (i.e. ELLs and special education).

I have many students for whom English was not their first language — some are even new arrivals in this country and have difficulty with basic conversation. Students who are native English speakers and have lived in New York for their entire lives take the same English Regents exam as ELLs who move to this country at age 16. While there are measures in place to address this for students (i.e. extended time) it’s hard to see how their scores on these tests can responsibly be used to judge schools.

I am not going make any specific recommendations of ways to better assist students enrolled in special education because, honestly, I do not have enough knowledge on the subject to make an informed statement. And herein lies a big problem: General education teachers are not being supported in working with this population. I can access and read IEPs (Individualized Learning Program or Plan) and know how to differentiate instruction to accommodate different learning styles. However, the range of needs for students is as diverse as the students themselves. Some may receive services for hearing loss or speech therapy while others struggle with more severe learning or behavioral issues.

The extra funding that the city is fighting for would be much better used in providing teachers with professional development that addresses methods and practices for working with a diverse set of learners. I have always found my students enrolled in English as a second language and special education programs to be some of the most enjoyable to work with. I would greatly benefit as a teacher from more training in this area that affects so many teachers in New York City.

The bottom line is that schools educate people, not products. The current trend of reform in this city tries to establish one uniform idea or program that can be somehow magically applied to every school and have the same outcome. But there is no panacea for education. Students, schools, and communities have unique issues that each are facing.

Teachers feel left out of the process. I’m willing to bet that the members of the Panel for Educational Policy will not visit my school or any of the other 33 “persistently low-achieving” schools before they vote on our fate. Closing these schools will have detrimental effects on our neediest students. The Department of Education would be wise to visit these schools, meet the staff, students and parents, and really listen to the unique needs of each community. Only then can there be meaningful discourse about the best way to support struggling schools.

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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