harlem renaissance

Librarian recruits Cornel West to Harlem school that could close

McIntosh with Muriel Petioni after she spoke at Wadleigh about being one of the first black, female doctors in America

A dogged school librarian who runs a speaker series at his struggling Harlem school has recruited the provocative scholar Cornel West to be his next guest.

On Monday, West will visit Wadleigh Secondary School for The Performing and Visual Arts, which is on the city’s shortlist of schools that could be closed this year, as part of a series of initiatives led by the school’s longtime librarian, Paul McIntosh.

Over the years, McIntosh has been a bright spot amid Wadleigh’s challenges, maintaining a welcoming library that is a haven for students and attracting a diverse roster of luminaries to speak. Past visitors have included Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard, and local physicians and poets. The aim of the speaker series, McIntosh said, is to expose students to future possibilities and hook them on literature.

“We’ve tried to put young men and women in contact with people of substance from a number of disciplines,” McIntosh told me. He noted that many of the students he works with are “on the precipice of bad behavior.” He hopes that by connecting them to a variety of inspiring individuals, they can be redirected.

“If they just get a little bit of support they’ll be able to see the light and aim for their higher selves,” he said.

McIntosh said he met West at several activism events and recruited him to Wadleigh during April’s “Fight Back USA!” teach-in. He said his only guidance to West was that the scholar, who will join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in 2012, try to motivate the students before him.

West has attracted attention for his radical politics and sometimes controversial statements. But McIntosh said he’s confident West will be a good influence for Wadleigh’s students, who will be joined by students from Frederick Douglass Academy II Middle School, also in the building, and representatives of the NAACP and Harlem community.

“As provocative as he is, he seeks to bring people together and to encourage and inspire them to seek a better life in all dimensions,” McIntosh said. “I really think he’s a person of courage.”

Teachers have been prepping students for West’s visit by sharing biographical readings about him and by sharing some of his shorter essays. There will be time for students to pose their own questions after his speech and, later in the day, there will be a small meet-and-greet in the library.

The high-profile visitor comes as Wadleigh awaits word about its future: The Department of Education has said it is weighing closing both Wadleigh and FDA II because of their academic performance. Wadleigh’s middle and high schools both got D’s on their progress reports this year, down from last year, and the school has come under scrutiny in recent years for its credit recovery practices.

McIntosh said he has been participating in Wadleigh’s effort to communicate to DOE officials that the school should get another lease on life. And Anthony Klug, Wadleigh’s UFT chapter leader, told me that he thought the school had improved since he started there eight years ago. But he said the school had no shortage of challenges, from losing teachers and guidance counselors to budget cuts to clashes with the DOE over use of the building to reduced enrollment.

Next year, Harlem Success Academy’s charter middle school is set to move into the building.

When schools are phased out, their libraries often sit empty, and librarians can be the first cut when the staff starts downsizing. But McIntosh said he is not as concerned about himself as he is about librarians as a class of educators.

“Librarians really are sort of under assault,” he said.  “I don’t know if we’re considered somewhat superfluous or what, but sometimes one doesn’t see the librarian as an integral — or crucial — part of the education of young people.”

In addition to carrying out the traditional roles of a librarian and hosting 25-plus speakers each year, McIntosh runs poetry and fiction clubs during students’ free periods and after school. He has also published three anthologies of poetry collected from students and speakers. The newest collection, “The Ringing Ear,” came out this month. And he has been recognized with a slew of prizes, including the national “I Love My Librarian Award.”

McIntosh quoted West as he explained why he does what he does within his school: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

“My feeling is that these young people, with all of their confusion, are worthy of being saved for the sake of this community, for the sake of this nation, for the sake of humanity,” McIntosh said. “Who’s to say how they will contribute to the language of humanity? You never know.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”