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

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.