First Person

Differentiated School Closure Decision-Making

Like 20 other schools across the city, Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Corporate Academy recently received word that Chancellor Joel Klein has recommended that the school be closed. In some ways, MCA outshines other schools. For example, in June 2009 MCA outperformed 74% of city schools in weighted US History Regents performance and more than 62% of city schools in weighted Integrated Algebra Regents performance. Of course, like all of the schools on Chancellor Klein’s shutdown list, MCA has real deficiencies and areas where improvement is needed. But the chancellor’s recommendation does not reflect the learning community that has been created here, and his selective use of statistics to justify his decision is upsetting.

The progress reports do show how MCA compares to other schools that share some of its characteristics, but that comparison doesn’t reflect the nuances behind MCA students’ specific needs and accomplishments. And when DOE officials visited MCA on Jan. 14 to explain the decision to close the school, they compared MCA to schools citywide. Considering the emphasis on differentiation of instruction in the classroom to meet the needs of students, it seems reasonable to ask the same of our chancellor: Differentiate your evaluation of each school to reflect the needs of that particular school. The decision to use failures to reach citywide averages as the basis to close schools is unreasonable and unfair because it fails to account for the unique needs of each school’s population.

Klein should recognize that a school like MCA (where 80% of students who entered in 2006 scored 1 or 2 on their 8th grade statewide ELA exams) is going to have a harder time getting its students to pass the English Regents exam than a school that receives a more skilled 9th grade class. The performance of an incoming 9th grade class has great influence on the expected results, especially when the numbers are not outliers, but trends. It is unreasonable to expect that students who earned mostly 1s and 2s on their 8th grade exams will graduate at the same rate as students who earned mostly 3s and 4s. Similarly, while MCA’s attendance rate is too low, it’s not fair to assume the problem lies with MCA; forty percent of this year’s 9th graders, for example, also missed more than one in 10 school days in middle school.

An educator who differentiates well might also point out that there are a wide variety of factors that can keep students from graduating in four years. At MCA those factors include (but aren’t limited to) residential transience, homelessness, health issues, incarceration, and death. Each of these factors limits what teachers and administrators can do to help a student graduate on time. What the chancellor is choosing to do by limiting “graduation rate” to the 4-year number is discouraging MCA from differentiating its program to meet its students’ needs. While the 4-year graduation rate at MCA (2009: 48.1%) is lower than the staff considers acceptable, the most recent 5-year graduation rate is 62% and most recent 6-year graduation rate is over 70%, well above the citywide average.

The use of citywide statistics is particularly unfair to small schools like MCA. Our student body (total enrollment averaging 390-420 pupils in past 5 years) means that very small events can have catastrophic impacts on our school’s performance. As an example, MCA had three students of the 2005 cohort who should have graduated in June of 2009, but they missed one of the morning Regents exams they needed to graduate in June – two due to illness, one due to oversleeping. When those students took the exams in August and passed, they received their diplomas, but their achievement did not count towards the 4-year graduation rate. If those three students had passed the exam in June, our 4-year graduation rate would have been nearly 6 percentage points higher. A similar jump in statistical performance at a larger school would require an event of much greater consequence. It is unjust to penalize MCA for being more dramatically affected by small changes.

The chancellor’s failure to account for the specific needs of individual schools when determining a school’s future is unreasonable. Arbitrary selection of statistical categories and skillful manipulation of data could be used to show the “failure” of even the strongest schools in the city. Further, the blanket comparison of unique schools to a citywide standard with no account for needs of the individual school is unfair. MCA clearly has steps to take to better serve its students. But it is only right that the chancellor do a better job of considering the individual needs of MCA’s educational community when evaluating their performance.

Instead of looking at a school and seeing the visible successes, the chancellor is looking at a school and seeing failure. And while I imagine that none on the closure list is without room for improvement, it is unreasonable to look at a school like MCA and deny its successes.

Alex Jones is a U.S. History teacher and policy debate coach at the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, a small high school in Brooklyn.

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.