First Person

Countdown To ‘Guys and Dolls’ In The South Bronx, Pt. 1

After eight years of making theater with urban teenagers and witnessing how challenges can be turned into fuel for creativity, I know that Orson Wells was onto something when he said that “the true enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” That’s all well and good, but I’m pretty sure my man Orson never tried putting on a full-length Broadway musical with a hundred South Bronx teenagers on a tiny stage in a school gym while pregnant and raising a 2-year-old.

Poster advertising the performance outside Room 201

Here’s Part 1 of a condensed 100-day countdown to our production of “Guys and Dolls,” in performance at Bronx Prep May 24-26. Witness the mayhem, the misery, and the small moments of grace in the midst of it all, and stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

100 days until opening night

We haven’t even decided which show we’re doing this year and already we can’t seem to catch a break. I find out today that we can’t get a performance license for the “The Color Purple,” which is the musical the student leaders of the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy have been clamoring to put on at school ever since they saw it on Broadway two years ago.

I’m sorry that kids who’ve shown such strong initiative won’t get their first choice, and that the now-tight timing means that teachers, not students, will choose the show this year, but I can’t say I’m personally devastated by the news. Deep in the grip of first-trimester crankiness and bracing against  one of the coldest, dreariest winters on record, I have to admit that swapping out an emotionally wrenching drama for some good old fashioned jazz-hands sounds like a great idea to me right now.

98 days until opening night

In keeping with tradition, we announce the spring show with a dramatic unveiling of a bulletin board outside of room 201. This year’s crowd of curious kids and teachers is bigger than ever.

After what I hope is a rousing build-up, I rip off the sheet to reveal a hand-painted poster of the New York skyline overlaid with a bright pastel logo for “Guys and Dolls.”

Usually there’s applause. Hollering. Jumping up and down.

This year? Crickets. The kids look around at each other, bewildered. It hits me that they’ve never heard of the show. A posse of high school girls peels away from the crowd and storms off down the hallway.

92 days until opening night

After a few days of stewing over the kids’ reaction to our show choice, I find out that the girls’ exit wasn’t really as huffy as it looked. As one student explains to me today, far from storming off, they’d actually almost trampled each other racing down the hall to the library to Google the show and figure out what leads to start preparing for.

87 days until opening night

High school boys come to audition in record number this year

I wake up this morning so nauseous and tired I can barely get out of bed, but my mood is buoyed by the turn-out at auditions. Last year we had about 65 kids. This year, 147 kids show up — nearly 20 percent of the Bronx Prep student body.

Granted, this means auditions are a logistical nightmare. Not to mention a fire hazard. I agonize about how many kids we’ll have to cut. I also struggle at several points during the first round not to throw up. (I haven’t told the kids I’m pregnant yet and can only imagine what my vomiting during their singing would do to their fragile egos.)

But overall the energy is great. And the best part is that almost a third of the kids trying out are first-timers, most of them guys.

84 days until opening night

Cast list is up. Lots of crying kids. Phone calls to devastated parents. Year after year, I never get used to this part.

83 days until opening night

First rehearsal. Ninety actors packed into a room designed to hold 45. How did I let myself cast so many kids this year? Pregnancy hormones to blame?

I share the news that I’m expecting a baby and tell the kids they better not mess with me this year. They grin and rub my belly and promise to be extra calm, quiet, respectful, and responsible. I grin back and tell them I’ll believe it when I see it.

72 days until opening night

Tragically, my over-casting might turn out not to be such a big issue after all. Today I discover that almost 30 percent of our cast members will be academically ineligible to participate unless they get their grades up by the end of the marking period.

The really bad news is that on the list of struggling kids is the actor who plays Sky Masterson, the male lead. Why has this bright, capable young man suddenly given up on himself halfway through his senior year with a lead role on the line?

64 days until opening night

11th-grader Stephanie shows fifth-grader Mavelyn how it's done (under mentor Julie's watchful eye)

The cast may be a hot mess, but the set crew is holding it down. With so many of last year’s set crew guys now playing roles in the show, most of the crew this year is female.

There is nothing I love more than watching an 11th-grade girl teaching a fifth-grade girl how to use a circular saw.

53 days until opening night

Chris Moncrief, one of my former students and star of the Bronx Prep musical theater program as well as the speech team, comes back from his first year at Syracuse University to pay us a visit. Without waiting to be asked, he steps into a rehearsal with a group of middle school boys and within minutes the scene transforms from stilted and flat to rhythmic and hilarious.

47 days until opening night

Drama with our male leads continues to plague us.

Today a friend emails me an Onion article about President Obama holding nationwide auditions for “Guys and Dolls.” Even after auditioning 8 million Americans for the role, the article jokes, Obama is still searching for the perfect Nathan Detroit. On any other day I would have laughed out loud at this, but today I can only muster a gallows-humor sigh: Soon I might be conducting that same search all over again. I’ve just gotten word that tomorrow I have to attend an expulsion hearing for a 10th-grader I’ve known for four years and have come to love like a son — none other than the kid who plays Nathan Detroit.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this three-part series of posts leading up to opening night of Guys and Dolls at Bronx Prep.

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.