First Person

Voices: For this teacher, TCAP spells ANGST

Melissa Verdeal, a veteran Denver teacher, describes the anxiety of waiting for the annual state test results that will label her school – and her students.

I always have mixed feelings this time of year.  I have to admit that I have the end-of-summer blues, and I will miss having a leisurely cup of coffee on the patio every morning.  At the same time, I love the beginning of a new school year.  I can’t wait to go back-to-school shopping, set up my classroom and fill my new planner with fun and engaging lessons.  And, I really look forward to seeing the faces of my new students in their back-to-school outfits sitting in my class. It is a fresh start for all of us.  Sort of.  The end of the summer is also fraught with anxiety because it is the time when I get the results of the TCAP that my students took last March.

The results will determine what color my school is. Trust me, in Denver, your TCAP color means everything these days. Being Blue or Green is good.  Being Yellow, Orange, or (God forbid) Red is bad. There is a lot riding on the color designation determined by TCAP.

I teach language arts at an Orange school according to the 2010-2011 DPS Performance Framework.  It is not easy being Orange. Being Orange means that there is tremendous pressure on teachers to get the scores up. It is the most important priority. All year we worry. We study and dissect the data. We provide interventions for students who score Unsatisfactory or Partially Proficient. We plan professional development to help us drill down on the skills that didn’t score well. Every decision is made through the Orange TCAP lens. And then, in March, two months before the end of the school year, we administer the test and pray to the assessment gods that we have prepared our students to kick some TCAP butt.

Now, in the middle of August, five months after the test, I await the results. If the students did well, after the scores are disaggregated in multiple ways, maybe we will become Yellow. If the students didn’t do well, we might maintain our Orange. Or worse, we will become Red. While I believe our faculty worked to the Blue standard, I have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing Blue. It would be statistically impossible.

I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders as I await the release of the scores. Since I teach a tested subject (reading and writing), I feel responsible for the fate of my school. If our scores don’t go up, we may be subject to all sorts of bad things. We may be the next school to be turned around, closed or privatized. Our staff may be replaced with “better” teachers. However, if we did well, we can start the school year with our heads held high. We can walk tall into the first staff meeting without shame or self-blame.  We can sleep easy knowing that we are safe for at least another year.

I am also anxious to learn how my students did. After all, it is the indicator of my effectiveness. If they did well on that one battery of tests in March, then I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I am an effective teacher.  If they exceeded the expectation, I will get a bonus. I can’t even imagine the stress I will feel when Senate Bill 191 is in full effect, and my students’ performance will be a determining factor in my employment status.

Lastly, and most importantly, I am anxious for my students as they get their scores in the mail. They will open an envelope and they will be labeled. For some, it will be good news. I worry for the others who will open the envelope to learn that they are Partially Proficient or Unsatisfactory. I have seen the negative impact these labels can have on a student.  It makes them believe that the only thing that matters in school is how they perform on this one test. Sadly, they start believing that they are only as good as their TCAP rating. It begins to define their sense of who they are as learners and as members of the community.  Yep, I have lots of anxiety about that. I don’t think it is fair or right to do that to kids.

Now, I know that there are readers who will interpret my TCAP angst as proof that teachers don’t want accountability.  Let me dispel that notion. Of course teachers need to be accountable for the learning of their students. We cannot hope to improve the quality of education for all students without it. However, accountability must be meaningful, reliable and shared by all stakeholders. I am not at all sure that one test in March is a true measure of the quality of a school, or a teacher, or a child.

Nevertheless, it is the current reality of the test-crazy world of education. So, as summer vacation comes to a close, I will drink coffee on the patio, plan for the first days of school, say a few more prayers to those assessment gods, and try to keep my TCAP anxiety under control.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.