First Person

Countdown To ‘Guys and Dolls’ In The South Bronx, Pt. 3

Curtain call at the final dress rehearsal
In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of our 100-day countdown to opening night of last week’s performance of “Guys and Dolls” in the South Bronx.

What follows is the saga’s final chapter: a steady crescendo of logistical challenges, costume malfunctions, police confrontations, cast-member meltdowns, parental confrontations, laryngitis attacks, and other behind-the-scenes drama — all leading up to a show that, while it may not win us any Tony Awards, nonetheless confirmed my belief in the transformational power of making art with young people, obstacles be damned.

28 days until opening night

We’re missing 30 percent of the cast yet again today (SAT prep, Regents prep, storytelling workshop, talent show rehearsal, baseball practice, didn’t-read-rehearsal-schedule, dentist appointment, forgot, mom-won’t-let-her-come-because-she’s-on-punishment, remembered-but-skipped-anyway, on-probation-for-skipping-yesterday, on-probation-for-grades, on-probation-for-being-disrespectful-about-being-on-probation). The only upside is that dedicated fifth-graders like set crew member Aminata get to step in as understudies and show off their acting chops.

25 days until opening night

Can’t use the stage again this afternoon because we got bumped by the talent show folks. After half an hour of looking for a space during which a substantial portion of the already-diminished cast scatters and has to be rounded up by a crew of high school helpers, we cram into a vacant vestibule with a boom box. By the time we buckle down to work with 15 minutes left to rehearse, I’m wiped out. Granted, no one put a gun to my head and demanded I direct a full-length Broadway show with a huge cast in a space-challenged school while six months pregnant. That one’s on me.

24 days until opening night

2. Fifth-grade set crew member Aminata understudies the role of “Rusty Charlie”

The ninth-grader playing “Harry the Horse” is the only cast member who’s met today’s deadline for getting his lines memorized. Since he’s no longer struggling with the words, he’s got the confidence to start transforming a usually forgettable bit part into pure comic genius. Every time he opens his mouth he sends us all into hysterics.

18 days until opening night

Julie, our adult set crew mentor, on the phone near tears last night, after the talented but troubled 10th-grader she’s been mentoring as stage manager storms out of yet another set crew session: “Kate, you have no idea how much I love that girl.”

Same 10th-grade girl, in the hallway near tears today: “Ms. Q, you have no idea how much that woman hates me.”

16 days until opening night

Eighth-grader Shane gives the male leads some feedback

The guys’ dances and scenes are looking great. It’s a blast to watch the older high school kids taking pointers from the younger actors, some of whom are literally half their size.

Unfortunately, the girls’ scenes are plagued by technical problems. Tonight we try to stage their stylized burlesque number, “Take Back Your Mink,” but since we’ve never had a proper costume fitting due to poor attendance, the choreography issues we’re supposed to be addressing are eclipsed by tear-away gowns that either fall down too early or can’t be yanked off no matter how hard the girls try.

11 days until opening night

There was a scuffle today between two groups of middle school boys. Rehearsal ground to a halt and we had a long conversation about how, in theater — as in life — you sometimes have to think of the good of the group and resist the urge to fight back when you feel wronged.

One of the eighth-graders speaks up. “Sorry, Ms. Q,” he says, “but that’s not how I was raised. My mother says that if someone disrespects me or hits me, I’m supposed to come back at them three times as hard.”

When I speak to this kid’s mom on the phone tonight she tells me matter-of-factly that I don’t know the first thing about raising a child in the ‘hood.

She’s right. I let her know that I’m struggling to help her son navigate the different cultural rules of street life versus school life. She softens. We talk a while. By the end of the conversation she’s asking me about my pregnancy and my two year old daughter at home. It hits me that, as much as I love making actual theater with kids, it’s really the conversations like these that keep me coming back to put on these crazy shows year after year.

9 days until opening night

Today the whole 12th grade class leaves for a four-day senior trip. Reeeeally bad timing. All six of our main leads are seniors and most of them are in tough shape preparation-wise.

Sky — the kid who almost got kicked out of the show because of his grades — has pulled himself together, but only barely, and has been inconsistent with follow-through.

Our new Nathan — the understudy for the student who was expelled from school — is doing great, but he’s never been in a play before and he doesn’t know his lines.

Sarah has been stellar on attendance, but she’s stretched thin with academics and shaky on her songs.

Adelaide is bursting with talent that until recently has been buried under a sour, defensive attitude. She finally opened up last  week about her personal struggles and since then, she’s been eager, respectful and flexible. Still, I’m worried the trip will derail her and her progress will backslide.

8 days until opening night

Set crew dinner

The set crew has been acting flaky lately, but tonight they stayed and worked late. We celebrated with a big family-style dinner.

Julie and her 10th-grade stage manager have worked through their drama. The girl’s mother says she’s never seen her daughter more committed or dedicated to anything in her life.

7 days until opening night

Former Bronx Prep theater stars Chris Moncrief and Denisse Polanco come back from college to help out with the show. Chris just finished his freshman year at Syracuse; Denisse graduated a few days ago from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Having them around and willing to work hard brings a huge rush of fresh energy.

6 days until opening night

It’s Chris and Denisse’s second day on the job and we decide to crank hard and pull a late night organizing costumes. At 1:30 a.m. we call it quits. While they sweep the gym, I unpack the box with the remaining props ordered from Amazon — satin gloves, gangster hats, fake cash and a toy gun — and discover I’ve somehow mistakenly ordered a real BB gun with real bullets. Hands shaking, thinking of the kid who plays Nathan who was shot in the shoulder in a drive-by earlier in the year (and who ironically has to sing the lyrics “Sue me, sue me, shoot bullets through me”), I hastily pack the gun into my backpack to bring home and give Chris money to go to the costume shop tomorrow and pick up a fake.

5 days until opening night

This afternoon I leave the cast with the musical director for a few minutes to step outside and reason with the cops who are ticketing the van idling by the gym door while a kid unloads rented speakers.

Expecting a respectful exchange, I ask one of the officers to give us a break considering the positive work we’re doing with kids from the neighborhood.

“Oh, changing the world one life at a time, are we?” he sneers at me. “Well, if you’re really making such a difference, who’s inside watching the children while you’re out here talking to me? You letting the inmates run the prison in there?”

All my big talk about the value of civil discourse evaporates in a haze of mama-bear rage and I have to be physically ushered back inside before I start running my mouth and getting us into more trouble. Not my finest moment.

3 days until opening night

Today the cast is distracted to the point of dysfunction over The Rapture. While fifth- and sixth-graders disrupt dress rehearsal huddled in a corner of the gym praying that the world doesn’t end, I’m just praying that whoever took Stephanie’s $20 gives it back. Both the specter of the apocalypse and the apparent reality that we have a thief in our midst are wreaking havoc on morale.

At 6 p.m. the world doesn’t end. At 6:02 p.m.the $20 bill is found crumpled up under the same bleachers where it was taken from Stephanie’s wallet.

No accompanying choir of angels in either case — but both outcomes are welcome upgrades.

2 days until opening night

Crew member Stephanie paints the sign on the Biltmore Garage

There are many reasons to panic tonight. The girls’ costumes still aren’t finished. Crew is scrambling to complete the set. Props have gone missing. The lighting board is mysteriously on the fritz and so is the voice of one of our male leads. But the biggest, most infuriating issue is that most of the kids still aren’t solid on their lines. I derive a moment of bleak satisfaction overhearing Chris using exactly the same language with a kid that I used on him at this same time in the same context last year: “Dude, I just can’t learn the lines for you, you know?”

1 day until opening night

At midnight tonight, Chris and Denisse and I come back upstairs after a long, exhausting dress rehearsal to find the classroom that doubles as a changing room strewn with costumes, props and kids’ belongings.

I collapse in a chair and tell Chris and Denisse how sorry I am that the build-up to the show has been so tough this year. I feel miserable.

Denisse starts picking up costume items and folding them. Then she turns to me and says, “Are you kidding me? I live for this. Life would be so stale and sad and boring without this kind of stress. Anything worth doing is worth freaking out over, you know?”

I smile at her, and the frustration recedes a little. I think about the kids who have pulled their grades up from failing in order to stay in the cast. The parents and teachers who have been there for us. The kids and adults who have volunteered building sets, teaching dances, making costumes and running lights. The actors who I know will dig deep tomorrow and miraculously pull through — because they always do.

And at that moment, there is no place I’d rather be than here with my former students in a messy South Bronx classroom at midnight before opening night, freaking out.

Up next: show photos and a recap of the performances, reflections from kids in their own words, and more stories from behind the scenes.

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

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.

 
 

 

Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.