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From the classroom to City Hall: Meet Rita Joseph, NYC’s new ed committee chair

New York City Hall.

City Council’s new education committee chair, Rita Joseph, brings classroom experience to the position.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

As a teacher for 23 years, Rita Joseph has tried to make a difference for her students at P.S. 6 in Brooklyn. Now she hopes to affect the lives of many more students, as a newly elected member of the City Council and head of its education committee. 

Joseph, who emigrated from Haiti as a child, taught students who are learning English as a new language. She stayed in the classroom throughout her campaign. Her last day was Dec. 23, giving her a front-row seat to the challenges of the pandemic, including teaching through the initial shut down, and now, the omicron wave. She has also experienced it as a parent worried about the ways COVID has interrupted her own son’s middle school education. 

Joseph was elected to represent Brooklyn’s 40th District, which spans Flatbush, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Kensington, Ditmas Park, and the southern edge of Crown Heights. She spent her first days in office calling every school in the district, and has already met with Chancellor David Banks and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten

Chalkbeat asked her about her time as a teacher, her priorities for the education committee, and what vulnerable students need to succeed in the face of so much interrupted learning. 

Here are her answers, edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your teaching career. What drew you to the classroom and how would you describe your teaching philosophy?

I wanted to be a diplomat. I studied international relations, studied abroad, and came back and started working for the UN. And once I was in there, I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t seeing the changes that I would like to see, because the UN is such a huge institution. And my cousin called and said, ‘Hey the DOE [Department of Education] is hiring bilingual educators.’ 

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Rita Joseph

Courtesy photo

And I was like, ‘Oh, my Creole is not that great.’ So I started collecting Haitian Creole newspapers to teach myself how to write Creole, and then to read it fluently. 

Then I was placed at P.S. 6 on Oct. 29, 1999. And I’ve never looked back. I tried to quit a couple of times, though. Mind you, education wasn’t my thing. My principal’s like, ‘Go back upstairs, Ms. Joseph.’ And she became my mentor. 

Unfortunately, in 2005, she passed away. She said she saw some magic so we had to mold that. She molded me into the educator I became.

I went in, and I started fighting for the very basic things that my kids needed. From technology to arts, dance programs, making sure they were taken care of as a whole — educating the whole child. So that was the motto, educating the whole child.

It sounds like you really loved your job. So why did you decide to transition into politics?

I’ve been on the inside a lot, doing the change in just one school. With this opportunity, I can do so much more — a bigger platform. I may not be able to give them everything, but I’m going to darn try my best to deliver resources to all of these schools and help these students. 

I want them to trust our public schools. I want them to know that when they come, they’re safe. They will get the resources and the support that they deserve, along with the parents. I want to hear parents’ voices. I want them engaged in every step of the way. 

I’m a public school parent as well. I speak up. I talk. I want to find out what my kid doesn’t have, and how can we get it to their school? 

Pivoting to your current role, the City Council doesn’t have direct policy making power over the education department. But one of your biggest levers of influence is holding oversight hearings and making top officials answer questions publicly. What will your first oversight hearing prioritize and why?

One of the biggest things I would love to focus on is: class size. Why isn’t it a priority? Why are we still having crowded classrooms, especially during this time? 

Fighting for students who were historically left behind. I was an ESL (English as a second language) coordinator. I’ve seen our students. Students who live in alternative housing. I need their voice at the table as well. 

And just families that are struggling, I want to fight for them. I want to bring (officials) in, put them in the hot seat if I have to, to find out, to deliver services to the children. 

When it comes to COVID safety protocols in schools right now, what do you think is working well? What do you think needs to change? What can the City Council, and the education committee, do to address those concerns?

I was at two schools this morning. I noticed they do the temperature check. They do the screening. Students are sitting at their three feet. They have their mask on — no one had a mask below their nose, on top of their head. I didn’t get to see lunch. One of these days I’m going to pop in to see how the lunch protocol works. 

But so far, going into the building, I saw all safety protocols were available. There were hand sanitizers in all classrooms that I visited. Bathrooms were stocked with hand soap, paper towels — yeah, I visited everything. (Laughs) 

One of the things I was crying about was [COVID] testing. The turnaround time needs to be less than three days. At one point it was three days because I remember my kid took the test on a Thursday. We didn’t find out that he couldn’t go back to school until Sunday night, because he was exposed to someone who tested positive. So that should have been 24 hours. Because now I live with my elderly mom who’s 87 years old. 

Situation Room, they weren’t well staffed. At one point there was no one answering the phones, especially when omicron came in and started ravaging the schools. For example, my school, one floor was completely shut down. They had to move to remote because all the teachers — whether they were boosted, vaccinated — all tested positive for COVID along with the students. 

So those are things I want to see: Turnaround time, situation room fully staffed.

From what you’ve seen in the classroom, how are students who are learning a new language faring during the pandemic? Are there specific supports you’d like to see offered to those students? What about students with disabilities? Those in temporary housing?

ENL students, they regressed because of language acquisition. They’re not talking to their friends. They’re not socializing. Because at home, the first language is not English. So they’re still communicating in their native language. Those are the things I would love to see more support for them. There’s a Title III funding that they do after-school programming for them. 

Now because of COVID they’re probably not going out. Let them experience visiting a virtual museum. Let them have a virtual trip. Because with COVID we’re not visiting museums as much as we used to. But those would be some great experiences for them to get back the things that they have lost. 

For students with disabilities, we would love to see more support providing their OT/PT,  their speech. Transportation has been an issue. That’s something that first needs to be addressed, so the kid can get to school to get the services that they need. 

More generally, how should schools be supporting students academically, socially, and emotionally as the pandemic drags on? What do schools need in order to successfully do that? How can you ensure that happens?

First, I know there was a shortage of staff. We need to have staffing. You need to have people to provide the services. I don’t know if it’s too controversial but I’m gonna say it: We have ATRs. [ATR refers to the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of educators who don’t have permanent school assignments because their schools lost enrollment or closed, or because they faced disciplinary action.] We can tap into our ATR pool and see if we can fill in some of the shortage areas. 

Also, we need to be assessing the students to know what the needs are. Not just blanket, but assessing, see where they are lacking and meet those students where they are. If it’s math, provide math support. One of the things I complained about, and I’m seeing it with my own son now, is his handwriting. Because everything was done on the tablet, everything was done on a computer, and I’m seeing his penmanship went down. I love tech, but I think getting back to paper and pencil is also important. 

I want to see that come back and to take them out on trips. We stayed in the homes. We didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t go anywhere. I was so scared, I didn’t go anywhere. And then my mother had COVID. She was in a hospital for 10 days. So it was like ‘Okay, this is real. This is real.’ I would like to see them, probably one or two trips, maybe outdoors. A little bit more for them to get some fresh air, do something in the community. Something safe.

You’ve made a number of comments that make it sound like you feel like in-person school is really important right now. But there have also been a lot of calls for an option for remote school.

I support a remote option. When I was in the building, seeing so many students, teachers out – at one point 22 students were out, seven teachers tested out. In order to continue with no learning loss, we would move that class onto remote learning. It wasn’t asynchronous. One of the things I liked a lot was the fact that there was a live teacher on the other end, versus just posting the work.

There have been families who, from the very beginning of the school year, have said that they’re just not ready to go back into school yet and that they want their kids to learn remotely. Do you think there is a need for that? Or do you see remote school as just something to tap into when cases are high or lots of people in a particular school are sick?

That option should have been available.  I want parents to have that option. Then you can decide as a family. And then, there were kids who thrived during remote learning. There were kids who did really, really well. Because some of them had anxieties. Some of them had issues and they did really well in a remote option.

Earlier this year, a majority of council members endorsed a bill to reduce class sizes by changing the space requirements of classrooms. What do you think NYC should do to address class sizes – and pay for it?

I don’t know why that last council didn’t pass the bill, but I know I’m going to try under this council, to reintroduce the bill, and to get my colleagues on board to support this bill, and to know how important it is. Because it improves if it’s smaller, less kids in a classroom, more focus. I don’t care how smart you are, how brilliant, an amazing teacher you are — somebody is going to get lost in a crack. But the smaller the size, the more instruction. 

And it’s safety also. Parents are concerned, ‘My kid might get sick, bring it home, another family member gets it.’ That also reinforces for the parents that, ‘We got you. You’re safe because look, we only have 20 kids in the classroom versus us having 30.’ 

The United Federation of Teachers put a lot of its weight behind that bill. Do you think the UFT has too much power, the right amount of power, or too little power in how education policy gets made?

Is that a trick question? (Laughs)

How do you feel about the UFT’s influence in education policy?

That’s their job, to speak up on policies that affect the members directly. I thought it was the right amount of pressure. I didn’t think it was too much. I have joined them, as an educator. I taught until December 23. It’s important that we get that bill passed so I’ll be working on it, and you know, making sure we have enough nurses in school. Social workers, counselors, psychologists are very important to me. 

My school had about 675 students. I had one social worker, one guidance counselor, and one nurse. Some kids are never going to see that guidance counselor. Some kids are never gonna see that nurse, unless it’s a dire emergency. And the psychologist I had was, for three days it was one person, and two days it was another person. Somebody is going to get lost, and I don’t want that. 

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