First Person

Countdown To ‘Guys and Dolls’ In The South Bronx, Pt. 2

By the end of Part 1 of our 100-day countdown to opening night of “Guys and Dolls” at Bronx Prep, 30 percent of our cast members — including the talented 12th-grader who plays Sky Masterson — are on the verge of being kicked out of the show due to grades, I’m on my way to an expulsion hearing for the 10th-grader who plays Nathan Detroit, and as if there weren’t enough going on, I’m also launching into the second trimester of my second pregnancy.

Cast members of "Guys and Dolls" at South Bronx Prep

Here’s Part 2 of our tumultuous — but ultimately, I hope, inspiring — journey. Stay tuned for next week’s final chapter of our countdown to “Guys and Dolls,” in performance at Bronx Prep May 24-26.

46 days until opening night

The expulsion hearing for the young man who plays Nathan is emotionally devastating. All 10 people in the room are openly weeping pretty much the whole time, including the principal and the head of school, the teachers who have come to testify on the student’s behalf, the student’s mother, and the student himself.

In a heart-rending apology delivered with shaking hands and quavering voice, the young man admits that he’d gone against his instincts and committed an illegal action on a school trip in an effort to impress one of his alpha-dog friends who had challenged him to do something he knew was wrong.

His other teachers and I speak, each one us acknowledging this student’s otherwise stellar record of community service and school spirit. We wrestle with the excruciating clash between the value of zero-tolerance tough-love and the importance of judging young people’s actions with flexibility and nuance.

When the verdict is announced and the young man is asked to clean out his locker, his mother collapses with grief.

I’m late to rehearsal because I can’t stop crying.

44 days until opening night

Set crew members paint the backdrop

The expulsion, one of several stemming from the same incident, has sent shockwaves through the school, and we’ve spent a good part of the last two days packed into the gym in deep conversation as a whole school community.

It feels good to be back here in the now-empty space on a Saturday morning, painting with the set crew. When we leave, there is a sunset stretching across the back wall of the gym’s small stage.

42 days until opening night

Today on my regular D train commute from Brooklyn to the Bronx a teenage boy stands up and offers his seat. I may have officially hit the 3-month-mark on the calendar a few weeks ago, but taking the kid’s seat today is the first time this pregnancy feels fully real. I sit on the train with my hands on my belly, thinking about the mothers of the kids I teach. Soon there will be one more person in the world I care about so much it makes my chest ache.

40 days until opening night

Nathan’s understudy, a magnetic, cheerful, naturally talented 12th-grader who has never been in a musical before, misses his first week of rehearsals with his fellow leads. All week I’ve been livid, threatening to kick him out. Then I find out today that he has been attending the wakes of two friends of his who were shot and killed when a scuffle at a party turned violent last weekend. Having been shot himself in the shoulder earlier in the year — the victim of an unprovoked and unexplained drive-by — he’s not only mourning the loss of his friends but also reliving his own traumatic experience.

I pass him on the street on my way out of rehearsal late this afternoon and ask him if he’s doing OK. He pauses and musters a bone-tired smile. “Not really,” he says. Then he hugs me and says, “I’ll be there on Monday.”

37 days until opening night

Kate and creative co-conspirator, Julia

Today’s Saturday rehearsal offers a momentary glimpse of brightness. While the costume crew sorts colorful clothing, a select group of dancers learns authentic Afro Cuban dance forms from dancer/choreographer Rebecca Bliss. Not only am I proud to infuse the usually-corny Havana scene with movements that come from some of our students’ own cultural traditions, I’m also excited to collaborate with Rebecca, a former fellow high school theater cast member, and now a dear friend.

35 days until opening night

Last night at midnight, third quarter grades were posted. Most of our cast members have gotten their GPA’s up high enough to participate. But despite several weeks of intensive tutoring, support, cajoling, and follow-up, our Sky has missed the mark.

This is a kid I’ve known since he was in fifth grade. He’s extremely bright and has always excelled. I don’t know why he’s given up on himself halfway through his senior year. My instinct is that something complex is going on below the surface, but with all the buzz in the air about accountability — not just in connection with our recent expulsions, but also in the national conversations about test scores, teacher firings and school closings — I feel intense pressure to enforce the grading policy I helped create. I reluctantly gear up to tell this young actor we’ll have to replace him.

Then he walks into rehearsal. His shoulders are slumped and his usually bright eyes are vacant and dim under the brim of the baseball cap he knows he’s not allowed to wear in school.

I agonize for a second. Then my teacher hardwiring kicks in. This kid needs accountability, no doubt, but right now my instinct screams that his need for support comes first. I pull the hat off his head, mentally postpone my final decision for one more day and tell him to open his script.

His first run-through is bland and lifeless. I ask him to do it again. Little by little, the role starts to do its work on him. By the third pass, he’s standing up straighter. His eyes come to life. The lines crackle; the jokes land.

Two hours later, he has completely transformed. His diction is crisp and assured. He holds himself with confidence and poise. There is a swagger in his walk.

Still, we both know there’s an elephant in the room. I send him home and tell him that we’ll need to have a big talk before the end of the week. He nods soberly.

34 days until opening night

Dancers learn mambo and Afro-Cuban salsa

I’ve been up most of the night, partly because the baby was kicking me, but mostly because I’ve been stressing about costumes, re-choreographing the end of the opening scene to replace kids who’ve missed too many rehearsals, and struggling over what to do about Sky.

No rehearsal today. My husband and daughter come with me to my 20-week sonogram.  We find out that we’re expecting a boy.

33 days until opening night

This afternoon, after a mad flurry of emails to his teachers—some of whom are supportive of giving him a second chance, others of whom warn me that I’m being manipulated by a clever young con artist who is more like the slick-talking character he plays than I’m giving him credit for — I give Sky an ultimatum. If he’s willing to dig deep and write a letter that explains the causes of his sudden apathy, takes responsibility for his past actions, and lays out a detailed accountability plan for the rest of the school year, I will let him stay with the cast — provided he follows through on the plan he creates.

I give him a deadline of midnight tonight for the letter.

At 11:47 p.m., his email arrives. The letter attached is well-written, courageous, and heart-felt.

I decide to take the gamble.

Stay tuned for the final installment of this three-part series of posts leading up to opening night of “Guys and Dolls” at Bronx Prep. As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school’s administration.

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.