First Person

At My “Persistently Low-Achieving” School

I work at one of the 33 schools Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated that he wants to “turn around” — or close. As part of this plan, he is also seeking to replace up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the schools, including mine.

I have worked in the same school for the past nine years. I can dismiss the sensationalistic claim from Bloomberg that 50 percent of teachers are ineffective, because it is simply not true. Likewise, when I hear defenders of educators claim that all teachers do great work, I know this is not correct either. The answer lies somewhere in between — in the case of my school, much closer to the defenders of teachers.

I want to describe the thankless service being done everyday by my colleagues and mentors. It is my hope that readers might share these personal profiles with friends, family, colleagues, and politicians to spread the word about the great work being done by educators in the schools the mayor has targeted.

At my school — labeled “persistently low-achieving” and slated for possible closure — there are several teachers with doctoral degrees. They could have pursued careers at selective high schools or even at colleges but chose to work at our school. Most have dedicated 10+ years to the school and are respected as the academic authorities in our building by both students and staff. They are able to translate their advanced content knowledge and make it relevant and exciting for our students.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there are many teachers who give up their lunches, preparation periods, weekends and vacations to work with students — for free! While this is not always a popular position with hard-line union supporters, these professionals put their students ahead of their own personal interests. Just last week, I saw teachers:

  • work an entire period with a senior on a college entrance essay, leaving the teacher with no lunch break between teaching four classes;
  • use their professional period to meet individually with seniors who are behind in credits, but hope to graduate this June;
  • come to work 45 minutes early to host a celebration recognizing students with outstanding attendance;
  • stay late on a Friday afternoon to tutor a student who needed a little extra help this marking period;
  • discuss how to differentiate instruction to reach all students in their classes during lunch; and
  • seek out other teachers for advice on effective material to use with their students.

And to think, this is just what one person witnessed in a single week — the same week that all of the teachers found out they might be losing their jobs.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — a teacher coordinates a leadership class, which has created a culture of service among an impressive portion of the student body. Students:

  • donate blood through on site blood drives, several times a year;
  • collect food, money, toys and clothing for those in need;
  • fundraise for cancer research;
  • translate for non-English speaking parents at parent/teacher conferences; and
  • host after school sessions advocating tolerance and respect.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there is a teacher who has successfully implemented a peer mediation program.  Student volunteers work to help their peers resolve conflicts through discussion rather than fighting.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — I have had students who went on to attend Columbia University and Rollis College on full scholarships and law school at Temple and Georgetown universities. Some of my former students have gone into pre-med programs, and others are finishing up with teacher training programs.

And last week I received great news during this otherwise difficult time: a student in my jazz band with whom I have worked for the past three years was accepted on full scholarship to play Division I football at West Point.  Another was accepted to two colleges —one on scholarship — but is waiting to hear back from her top choice.

Does this sound like a failing school?

In fact, the student attending West Point is the second student we have had in the past three years to go on to play football for a Division I school. An impressive feat for any program — and especially for ours, where the coach built a program from scratch only recently, several years after I came to the school. The coach has also helped hundreds of our athletes to improve academically; he established after-school study halls to make sure all keep up with their work.

When I found out about about my students’ achievements, I immediately found myself texting family and friends to share the great news. I also took a stroll down the halls to tell anyone who would listen. Out of nowhere, I found myself welling up with a mix of emotions.

One of my colleagues saw that I had tears in my eyes. She congratulated me on my students’ successes and gave me a hug. When she stepped back, I saw that she had begun to tear up as well.

“It’s just too bad, isn’t it?” she started. “We have such a great school with so many great students. It is sad that this may be the end of an era — the end of something that has been great for so long.”

“I think we just had an Oprah moment,” I told her.

For that moment we were able to share a much-needed laugh, at a time where there is little to laugh about.

Michael Albertson is in his ninth year teaching instrumental music at a large public high school in Queens. A version of this piece originally appeared on his blog, Urban Education: Music and Beyond.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.