First Person

Students Direct, Drama Ensues: Lessons in Leadership

“I can’t do this, Ms. Q. These kids hate me.” Eleventh-grader Ruth presses her forehead to the wall in the corner of the art room and sighs.

When my colleague Andrew Simon and I teamed up with Ruth and several other high school students last summer to create the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy, we all knew we were taking on a challenge. The program serves about 60 kids in grades 5-12. The kids are expected to grapple with sophisticated texts spanning poetry, prose, theater, musical theater and original oratory. And the whole thing rests on a model of peer mentoring and student leadership that represents a pretty radical shift away from the rigid, top-down culture I found when I first came to Bronx Prep as a theater teacher eight years ago.

In the months that I’ve been mentoring Ruth and her peers as directors and designers for our first-ever student-led musical, “Aladdin,” she’s has been the model of grace under pressure. Now I watch her bury her face in her hands and cry.

“All I want to do is support them so they can put on an awesome show,” she says between sobs, gesturing to the room next door where she’s left the cast of 40 fifth- through eighth-graders in the hands of her 11th-grade co-director. “But they won’t listen. So I have to be the bad guy. I don’t know what else to do. I yell. I give them detentions. I threaten to call parents. None of it works. And now they hate me.”

Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.
Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.

I know exactly what Ruth is going through. My own trial-by-fire as a first-year teacher may have played out nearly a decade ago, but this current experiment in student leadership has catapulted me right back to my own early days in the classroom, reliving everything the young leaders are currently facing-all the anxiety, the fear of failure, and the frustration that comes from wanting to do creative work with kids and instead feeling like a glorified traffic cop, and an incompetent one at that.

Especially given how challenging their jobs are, Ruth and her team have been doing remarkable work so far. They’ve coached huge groups of inexperienced actors and singers, invented and taught choreography, sewn costumes, built sets, painted backdrops, organized ticket sales and coordinated complex schedules.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk somebody out of quitting.

I put a hand on Ruth’s shoulder, tell her that she’s doing fine, and reassure her that we’ll use our post-rehearsal planning time to troubleshoot. “And listen, honey,” I say, fighting to hold fast to my hard-won convictions. “I know you’re feeling some resistance from the kids right now, but believe me. They don’t actually hate you.”

At this precise moment, a sixth grader named Manuela bursts through the door of the art room, hysterically wailing, “Ms. Q! I can’t do this anymore! I HATE RUTH!”

The two crying kids lock eyes and freeze. And that’s when I realize that I’m in over my head, big time. Who knew that all the experience I racked up learning to lead in my own classroom wouldn’t translate directly to an ability to teach my students to do the same? I may talk a good game about the value of side-by-side learning experiences where the teacher becomes the student, but now that I’m actually back here in beginner-mode: I’m freaking out.

My natural instinct in this moment is to scrap the whole experiment, grab the reins from the kids and scramble back into my comfort zone-smooth over Ruth and Manuela’s hurt feelings, leap into the fray next door, sweep the high school leaders aside, restore order, get the middle school performers back on track and move the whole process forward.

But I think back to the lesson I got from the kids in the first week of rehearsals, after I’d interrupted a practice session a few too many times with what I thought was helpful feedback, and Ruth’s co-director Sahirah spoke up afterwards. “You know, Ms. Q, with all due respect, if you put us in leadership positions, it’s really hard when you don’t actually let us lead. I know you want to help, but it confuses the kids when you step in, because then they don’t know who’s in charge.”

It was a point well taken. Sahirah’s comment brought me back to my first year as a teacher and how miserable it felt when a well-meaning colleague occasionally swooped in to offer some “back-up,” bringing my wild classroom to order with a mere raising of eyebrows and unintentionally confirming my worst fears about my own hopelessness as an educator.

What was true for me then was true for my kids now: inexperienced leaders require a ton of support and structure from their mentors on the back-end, but ultimately they need to be trusted to muddle through the work on their own. They need to learn by doing, even when-heck, especially when-that means making mistakes.

So now I check my control-freak impulses. After a brief conversation, I leave Ruth and Manuela in the art room to work out their differences by themselves, step into the other room to make sure it’s not total chaos, and grit my teeth while the kids struggle through the rest of their rehearsal unassisted.

Then, as we do every afternoon, the battle-weary crew of leaders and I sit in a circle on the floor of the rehearsal room and wrestle with frustrations, come up with new strategies, celebrate small successes, and plan for the following day.

***

Weeks have passed since that low moment with Ruth and Manuela. There were lots more moments like it to follow.

Students performing "A Whole New World." Manuela is wearing yellow.
Students performing 'A Whole New World.' Manuela is wearing yellow.

But step by messy step, the kids pushed forward … and I gradually and painfully learned to do a half-decent job of keeping my mouth shut. We all did a lot of reflection about learning, innovation, commitment and leadership along the way. And at the end of the process, the kids put on a show that was bursting with energy and creativity.

When I sat down with Ruth and Manuela recently to look back on the whole experience, Ruth said that one of the biggest leadership lesson she’d come away with was this:

I feel like the kids respect you when you’re […] organized, and you’re calm and you show them you think they’re doing great. Then they do the right thing, mostly — not because they’re afraid of you, but because they’re excited and, you know, they want to make the show good. They’re willing to take a risk and go further than what they believe they can do. When they go beyond their own expectations, they get excited and the whole thing just flows.

Click here to check out our student blog to read student posts, see student photography and video from the show, and read a transcript of my whole conversation with Ruth and Manuela — now inseparable creative co-conspirators.

Co-directors Ruth and Sahirah take a bow.
Co-directors Ruth and Sahirah take a bow.
Ruth and Manuela.
Ruth and Manuela.

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.