First Person

The Kids Nobody Wants

It’s scary when schools close. No reasonable person wants to see that happen. But look at the closing schools and you’ll notice they all have certain things in common. The one that really stands out is the large population of students with special needs. Now don’t take this the wrong way — I make my living teaching kids like that, and I adore them for the most part.

But whose fault is it, really, if it takes my kids longer to graduate? I mean, most kids pass my beginning English classes. I always hope to pass 100 percent of my students, and I sometimes come very close. But when I see a kid who came from Korea 18 days ago carrying around a two-inch thick biology text, I’m not optimistic. How on earth is that kid gonna differentiate between enzymes and hormones? I just spent 10 minutes showing him the difference between “kitchen” and “chicken,” and I count myself lucky he got that far.

Unfortunately, school report cards are serious business nowadays. And don’t fool yourself into thinking they mirror report cards your kids get. If my kid, for example, came home with a D, it might be a long time before she’d see her iPod again. Of course it’s well known that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Chancellor Klein sent their kids to public schools. That’s probably for the best, because if they had, and their kids brought home Ds, it’s entirely conceivable they’d have been tossed onto the streets and replaced with 3 or 4 smaller kids, just as they replace D-rated schools with 3 or 4 smaller ones.

Yet new small schools are unlikely to take the kids who pull down the all-important graduation rates. Queens Collegiate is a shiny new school on the third floor of closure-slated Jamaica High School. Jamaica’s UFT chapter leader, James Eterno, told me that when Queens Collegiate got a special education/ESL student it wasn’t equipped to handle, they sent the kid right back downstairs to Jamaica. 

Some schools, like mine (Francis Lewis High School) take kids we know won’t graduate — they’re on track for “alternate assessment” instead of academic diplomas. And every one of these kids — about 2 percent of our total population — is counted against us when they fail to achieve a traditional graduation. You might say they are dropouts on the day they enroll.

Have we failed these kids? We’ve sent them to programs where they train for jobs they can do when they get out of high school. Isn’t that a good thing? According to the metrics that closed 19 schools this year, it’s of no value whatsoever. I’d argue that preparing kids to support themselves is of far more value than preparing them to pass a Regents exam. But Joel Klein’s Tweed gives little or no weight to the arguments of teachers.

Francis Lewis got an A last year, by the skin of our teeth. Actually, our ESL kids did well and earned us extra credit, bless their souls. But I know, whether or not our kids helped us out, we are a great school, overcoming enormous odds, all of which are dumped on us by the wholly indifferent Department of Education. They would close us tomorrow with just as much ease as they take credit for our accomplishments today.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew told me, “They send high-needs kids to other schools with no strategy to help them.” And that’s absolutely true. Everyone, whether or not they admit it, now sees the shell game that the school closings have become. Close Far Rockaway and move the kids to Beach Channel. Close Beach Channel and send them over the bridge to somewhere else. Close all the large high schools, doomed to failure by the deliberate shuffle of difficult kids, and turn them over to the next schools on the firing line. When they run out, close the new schools and start newer ones.

Meanwhile, why would city principals want these kids? They’re a drag on their statistics. And in today’s DOE, statistics are all that counts. 

But it takes a few years to learn English, and it’s entirely unreasonable to expect kids to pass biology before they do that. My kids will learn English. They’re as smart as anyone else. But they need a little time. That’s a simple fact, and we shouldn’t be penalized for preparing kids for a better future. It beats the hell out of Joel Klein’s apparent policy of shuffling them off somewhere else and hoping for the best.

So, again, why would any principal want ESL, special ed, or alternate assessment kids? DOE policy appears tailor-made to penalize those of us who take on the second toughest educational challenge there is-helping the kids who cannot reasonably be expected to get Regents diplomas in four years. 

The toughest educational challenge, of course, would be getting Joel Klein to do what’s best for children. Since that will never happen, we can only focus on overcoming Tweed’s stranglehold on mainstream media. It’s contract time, and the tabloids are busily dispensing nonsense designed to tar all teachers for the alleged sins of a few. Were they targeting an ethnicity rather than a profession, people would see them for the bigots they are. 

Meanwhile, who’s speaking up for those of us who embrace our most challenging kids? Schools taking on these kids ought to be rewarded. Under Joel Klein’s stewardship, they are dumped onto the scrap heap. The same could be said for these kids, left without neighborhood schools, and without Metrocards to get them wherever Tweed sees fit to send them.

These kids deserve better. Their neighborhoods deserve better. And it appears New York City is waking up to that fact. Joel Klein knows it, and that’s why he didn’t wait till 6 a.m. to close schools yesterday. Will that fool New Yorkers into believing he’s got their interests at heart?

Not this time. That ship sailed on January 26th, when he chose to ignore Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and every single speaker who came to the PEP meeting.And much as the mayor and chancellor might wish otherwise, neither they nor the local tabloids will be able to ignore the joint school-closing related lawsuit of the UFT and the NAACP. This suit, of course, comes directly on the heels of the one protesting the city’s consistent failure to deal with class size, despite having accepted hundreds of millions for that very purpose.

These lawsuits will help show the public once and for all who really cares about the education of these kids-and make no mistake-those people are UFT teachers in neighborhood schools.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.