First Person

A Memorable Student, Lost and Found

My friends Barbara and Jane were with me that Sunday afternoon when I answered the call from 718-777-4300. “Just pick it up, see who it is,” said Barbara, over my protests that I’d already had about 10 missed calls from the same number that morning and didn’t want to deal with any telemarketers over the weekend. When I grudgingly answered, I heard, “Please hold,” and as the Rikers Island switchboard put through the call, a saga 10 years long began a new chapter.

It was my former student Tom calling, responding to my letter to him and my entreaty to his Legal Aid lawyer to have him get in touch with me and allow me to visit him in jail.  That phone call on Memorial Day weekend 2010 was the first time I had spoken to Tom since 2001, when he was in the fourth grade, I was a young teacher, and we were about to lose touch — he by bouncing around from PS 192, where I met him, to special education school to detention center to jail on Rikers Island, I by leaving the school where he had been in my third-grade class to look for a better environment in which to teach and, a few years later, by leaving the district altogether and starting Harlem Link Charter School with Margaret Ryan.

In the third grade, Tom touched me as few people have because it was clear that he had special gifts but without consistent and serious guidance he was headed for trouble. By the time he was eight, he had about every risk factor you could name: orphaned, neglected, disabled, hyperactive. With more agency identification numbers than birthdays, it’s no wonder he landed in the tracked “bottom class” that was assigned to me, the lowest ranked among six or seven sections of third-graders at my gargantuan elementary school. Though he never seemed to sit still or attend to his lessons, though he ran circles around the routines his novice teacher was trying to put in place, Tom was a sponge for knowledge and somehow, through sheer eagerness to learn and some uncanny survival skills, met the academic standards in reading and arithmetic that year.

In the nine years between his transfer to what I had heard was a “special education school downtown” (“He was scared” was all another teacher could tell me about the situation as he left) and the Memorial Day phone call, I used every tool I could find to search for him: phone calls to colleagues, new lists of special education schools, and Google and other resources on the Internet.

In about 2007 I found Tom registered at a detention center in the Bronx. Concerned but elated that he was seemingly back in the system where I could contact him, I called the school office there to ask about him. “No recollection of that one,” said the person responsible for registration there. “He’s probably already gone, if he was ever even here. We have 300 students in this facility, and they come and go all the time. You can’t expect me to know them all.”

In the nine years since I last saw him, Tom has made a series of poor choices.  At the apex of these choices he committed a felony: robbery in the first degree. As a consequence he spent his 16th through 18th birthdays in a variety of jail and prison facilities from Rikers to the Bronx to Goshen, upstate. In December 2009, three years after imprisonment for his crime, he was released on parole. Within three months, he was back in jail for violating parole.

While Tom alone is responsible for his behavior, I’ve seen the long arc of his life since 1999 and understand that the truth is a bit more complicated. As he told me over the phone, he has lacked adult guidance over the years. That’s as gross an understatement as I’ve ever heard.

Each year, through various public and private agencies, our educational and correctional systems have spent tens of thousands of public dollars on Tom’s education and rehabilitation. Talking with him on that phone call from jail, I learned that the pattern I first observed with him in 2001 — when well-meaning social workers, psychologists and teachers based both at his school and the Administration for Children’s Services disappeared from his life with the stroke of a pen and a transfer to a new setting — would continue as service providers flitted in and out of his life.

Coming of age behind bars, having no family support to speak of and lacking a consistent adult authority figure, Tom was simply unprepared for life on his own. To make matters worse, when his parole began Tom also learned what it means to be homeless. It came as no surprise to this observer to learn that soon after being released, he made a thoughtless and self-destructive decision to skip a parole hearing. The sad tale thus continued in March 2010, when Tom was picked up by the police on that infraction and wound up back in jail, the one place he didn’t want to go.

In the weeks between Tom’s re-arrest and his 19th birthday this summer, he has found himself trapped in a Kafkaesque process in which the correctional system is doing its best to provide him with some support for life on the outside. I have joined him in the middle of this journey and gained yet another paradigm-shifting education in the process. Tom has been through a series of hearings intended to release him to a nonprofit agency that would provide him with some combination of life skills training, temporary housing and substance abuse treatment and prevention. Each hearing has seen new obstacles arise and has ended in delay and continued imprisonment.

Taken on their own, each obstacle is logical, even beneficial. In one instance, an agency wasn’t aware of an earlier diagnosis, and requested a screening. Another time, after an animated display by a prosecutor, a judge decided Tom would be at risk of recidivism without an escort to his destination agency, something for which he is not eligible until age 19. With Tom’s maximum 45-day stay for violating parole now approaching 90 days, these hearings paint a picture of a bureaucracy that seems to refuse to coordinate information well enough both to serve justice and provide Tom with a chance to rehabilitate himself.

So for Tom, with yet another hearing scheduled in a few weeks, it’s more of the same: waiting in his cell and requesting “protective custody” as much as possible to avoid the violence of the other inmates. When I visited him, Tom showed me fresh handcuff marks on his wrists. “It’s not the guards, it’s the other inmates,” he said. Whatever Tom learned in third grade, it may have put him on the path to getting his GED before being released on parole — a glimmer of hope that he might recapture the promise I saw 10 years ago — but it did not provide the survival skills needed to stay out of jail or the social skills to deal with the target on his back that accompanies his status as one of the youngest inmates on Rikers Island.

When Margaret and I started designing our school, the word link kept coming up in our conversation, leading to the school’s name: Harlem Link. There were interdisciplinary links between subjects in the curriculum, links between home and school, collaborative links through co-teaching, links with institutional partners for field trips, and more. As the school prepares to graduate its first class of fifth-graders and send them out into the world, another link is taking center stage: the special relationship between teacher and student. I know our fifth-graders are prepared to navigate the challenges that come with adolescence and growing up as they move on to competitive middle schools. They have had a much more concerted, coherent and rigorous experience than Tom did when he began bouncing around the system. Perhaps equally important, we are laying the plans to keep track of, support and invite back to Harlem Link our alumni as they progress through middle school, high school and college.

Maybe there is nothing I could have done to help Tom along the way. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t understand a world in which a child could be so short on support that Rikers seems an inevitable destination. I also don’t understand a world in which, despite all of the agencies, all the social workers in and out of Tom’s life, all the hearings, I was maybe the one person looking for him, and I couldn’t find him until it seemed far too late. In the research I’ve done in the last month, partly to prepare to set up an alumni program for Harlem Link and partly in response to my experience with Tom, I have learned that a federal privacy law prevented me from having access to Tom’s records after he left my classroom. As his former teacher, I was deemed a no longer “interested educational party.” That’s right: The system is set up so that when something momentous happens in a child’s life, good or bad, his or her former teachers are officially not part of the educational community that can celebrate or provide succor on that occasion.

There are schools, of course, that track their alumni well. There are schools that measure their success longitudinally by finding out where their students go to college and what type of lives they lead decades after graduation (something we intend to do). There is nothing in the law preventing a school from asking alumni to stay in touch. What bothers me is the tremendous expenditure of resources that comes with dedicating staff time and technology to this effort when the most basic of this information is easily available in the New York City Department of Education’s servers. As a small school, we will do what it takes to keep these strongest links alive. But because of our limited resources, I know we will struggle to do it.

I’m talking to my lawyer friends to understand the reasoning behind this law — or regulation, since this interpretation is not specifically spelled out in the law — but in the meantime I am determined that nothing momentous will happen in the educational careers of our alumni without their elementary school teachers knowing about it.

Someone asked me recently why I wanted to make a big deal of Harlem Link’s 90 percent teacher retention rate in the past two years. With the school year winding down and this big graduation approaching, it’s been a time of reflection and celebration for many fifth-grade families. The notion that we are a larger family as a school and the famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” have come up repeatedly in different settings as families and students try to cope with the idea of moving on to the next school. To my questioner I say, the fact that our teachers are sticking around means, among other things, that Harlem Link will be better able to keep those teacher-alumni links intact.

I am back in Tom’s life now. I can’t see him every day for 180 days as I did 10 years ago, but I’m willing to bet that in those days I learned and today I still remember more about him and what he needs than the sum of all of the specialists and case workers who have appeared and disappeared in his life since. I wish I could have participated along the way, could have spoken to some of the people who had to learn his family history (or, in some cases, not even get that far) over and over again. And I’m determined that in 2020, none of our teachers will have to say the same about any of our proud graduates.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at firstperson@chalkbeat.org.

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

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

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“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’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives.

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“Teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”

 

Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.