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

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.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet 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.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.