First Person

An Open, Honest, Transcontinental Dialogue Starts Now

Dear GothamSchools Community,

A few weeks ago, as I read through GothamSchools, I saw a link to a column written by Marc Waxman. Even though Marc now lives in Denver, I know him well. For over a decade he worked in New York City where he worked as a teacher and administrator at KIPP Bronx and then founded and directed (with his wife) a school in Harlem which became a conversion charter school several years ago. Since his school and mine, Renaissance Charter School in Queens, are one of only five conversion charter schools in the city, we worked closely on many issues.

After emailing with Marc about some technical issues relevant to running multiple charter schools (something I am working on here in NYC and Marc is doing in Denver), Marc invited me to enter into a public dialogue with him (a la Diane Ravitch and Debbie Meier). This letter is the kickoff of that dialogue.

I was delayed in getting this first installment for GothamSchools’ community page. Why was I late? Well, I am a school principal (aka leader, administrator, management) and this is the beginning of the third week of school. Things are busy and I am working — 60-plus hours a week. This is not meant to get sympathy — I have a big job to do and failure is just not an option — but okay, you say, where is this going?

I am also busy leaving no child behind, chartering new territory (yes, this is a clue to my background), racing to the top (did I say I am afraid of heights?), advocating for anything advocatable (I am asking that this become a new eduterm), analyzing data to do all of these things and now I stand outside school every day waiting for superman.  He has not arrived. At least not yet.

I also need you to know that I am an idealist. Sometimes I am a cynical idealist and some days I am a cynical idealist realist. This comes from being in a school for the last thirteen years. This comes from being an observer and an active participant and on some days even a change-maker.

When Marc asked if I was interested in starting up a dialogue about educational issues facing us today, I first thought “Isn’t there enough of that?” But then I was reminded by a wise woman at GothamSchools that this dialogue often takes place outside of those people actually doing the work day to day educating our young people. This is not to say that those people don’t have something to say, because surely they do and their contributions and lobbying have been instrumental in helping to push education to the forefront of policy makers. In fact, I think it is safe to say that we have a pretty strong consensus among folks who usually can’t even sit in a room together without disagreeing in the first five minutes that our nation is in a state of emergency as far as education goes.

Our goal for this dialogue is to take back ownership of some of these issues, while discussing them in the context of real-world practice.

We won’t have all the answers, you’ll surely disagree with us and you’ll see that we don’t camp out in any one camp ground. Did I say that Marc’s one condition in writing this post together was that I promise to be candid and brutally honest at all times? This will not be a debate column on good pedagogy. Although I reserve the right to use appropriate quotes as necessary.

So, for now I am putting on my tights and cape and trying to act like a superhero so that when superman or superwoman comes he/she won’t feel so alone.

Marc — even though we have communicated a bit over the past couple years, there is a whole bunch that has been going on at our school and in NYC around charter schools and education generally. Let me catch you up on some highlights. Do you remember when we co-chaired a committee called Advocacy and Equity at The New York City Center for Charter School Excellence (now known as The New York City Center for Charter Schools)? We asked many questions (which it would be great to revisit in this blog) but one of the most controversial at the time was whether charter schools and teacher unions could truly be partners in educational reform. This year this very question was embedded in a series of articles dubbed “The War on Charter Schools” in the New York Post. Unfortunately, the conclusion reached in this article was a pretty resounding, “No, not today, not tomorrow, forget about it, Al Shanker!” I have a lot to say about this and interestingly after all that I experienced firsthand for the last two years, I continue to see that ray of sunshine and possibility coming through (remember, I am the idealist). But I would love to hear how unions and charter schools co-exist in Denver.


Stacey Gauthier is co-principal at the Renaissance Charter School in Queens.  Renaissance is a K-12 unionized, conversion charter school originally founded in 1992 by a group of teachers wanting to create a “renaissance” in NYC public education. Prior to joining Renaissance she worked in various not-for-profit settings including a major art museum and for a prominent labor union.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

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. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

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.