First Person

The Student Engagement Puzzle

Kate Quarfordt is the founding director of the musical theater program at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

I know you’re going to think I’m making this up, but I swear it actually happened, earlier this week, exactly as follows:

I’m on the D train heading up to the South Bronx, where I teach theater to students in grades 5-12. The commute from Brooklyn is a long one.

Out comes the laptop. I try to work on a draft of an article I’m struggling with. I’m supposed to be writing about making education engaging and relevant for today’s “urban youth.”

At West 4th Street I look up, my eye caught by the bouncy swagger of an attractive young kid with his hair in long thin braids. He’s maybe 13 or 14, wearing those jeans that somehow look baggy and skinny at the same time.

The kid sits down diagonally from me, takes out a Rubik’s Cube and starts working at it feverishly. He’s twisting and flipping it again and again at top speed, moving like he’s hypnotized.

People are glancing up from their iPods at him, mildly curious. The 30-ish guy in the rumpled T-shirt who’d been slouching half-asleep across from him is now sitting bolt upright, riveted.

After a minute or so he lets out a long whistle and asks, “Can you solve it?”

The kid grins and, without hesitating, tosses the Rubik’s Cube to the guy, who catches it.

“Yup,” he says. “Mix it up. I can solve it.”

So the guy scrambles it. He’s about to hand it back, but he hesitates. “Damn,” he says, wistfully. “I haven’t messed with one of these in years. Can I try solving it?”

“Sure,” says the kid. “But I’m getting off at 59th, so…”

The guy starts working furiously.

Now everyone on the train is watching. I try to pry my eyes away and go back to my laptop. But the article can’t hold my interest. I’m magnetized by the blur of the Rubik’s Cube in the guy’s hands.

The kid is, too. I catch his eye as he watches and smile at him. “So, you really know how to solve it?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, whatever. It’s just algorithms.”

“Right,” I say, trying not to let my jaw drop. “Listen, you gotta forgive me, but I’m a teacher so I’m kind of fascinated here. What do you mean, ‘just algorithms’?”

The kid looks at me like he feels a little sorry for me, and explains. “Well, an algorithm is just like a pattern of steps, like a sequence of moves to get you where you want to go.”

It occurs to me at this moment that it’s around noontime. This kid is skipping school.

“So … who taught you these patterns?” I ask.

“My friend,” says the kid. “This dude Lewis. He had a Rubik’s Cube and I thought it was cool, so I bought one and he showed me. It only took me a few days to figure it out.”

“Yeah,” the rumpled guy across from him chimes in, not looking up from the cube in his fast-moving hands. He’s got the red, yellow, green and white sides all matched up now, only orange and blue to go. “It’s just like in computer programming,” he says. “Everyone uses algorithms. And there’s some statistics involved, too, because when you —” he stops violently midsentence, as if he’s been stung by a bee, drops the Rubik’s Cube in his lap and throws his hands up. “Aw, damnit!” he says, “I just HAD to go and hit the asymptote!”

He displays the orange side, marred by a symmetrical pattern of four pesky blue squares, then flips the cube to reveal the same pattern in reverse on the other side.

“Oh snap,” says the kid, nodding sympathetically. “Yeah, the asymptote’s a bitch.”

“Wait a second,” I say. “What do you mean, the asymptote?”

The kid looks at me. “Thought you were a teacher.”

“I teach theater,” I explain.

The kid nods. “So, the asymptote is the curve?” he makes a swoop with his hand. “You know? The curve that keeps getting closer and closer to the line but never hits it?”

An image of the soup-green textbook from my ninth-grade geometry class, which I barely passed, flashes dimly in my memory.

“So what do you do when you hit the asymptote?” I ask. I am completely hooked now, my laptop closed on my knees.

“Well,” says the kid. “You gotta go back to go forward.”

“Like in life,” the guy agrees. He scrambles the cube up again so it’s totally random and hands it back to the kid, who holds it up and says, “Wanna see?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I definitely want to see.”

A few minutes later, we pull into 59th Street, just as the kid solves the whole puzzle. There is a smattering of applause. He says, “See ya, miss,” and gets off the train.

I sit there for a second. Then I open up my laptop.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.