First Person

Breaking Stereotypes, From The Bronx To Buffalo State

Marlin Santana is a first-year student at SUNY Buffalo State. Her post is the first in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

Three days. It only took three days for the perception of me at Buffalo State to go from “the innocent girl” to “the girl with the rough upbringing.” All I had to do was answer one simple question, “where are you from?”  As soon as I answered “the Bronx,” gasps and wide eyes filled the room.

I was asked questions like, “Have you ever been shot?” or “Are you or anyone you know in a gang?” I was even told stories about how children in Buffalo are taught that the Bronx is “hell on Earth,” and that those who misbehave will be sent there as punishment. At first I couldn’t help but be furious. I wanted to yell at them that they shouldn’t believe every scene they see in movies about graffiti-covered walls and gun shots being fired from black tinted windows. In fact a lot of the people in the Bronx are just like me: a teenager who, like other teenagers, has grown up in a loving home surrounded by supportive friends.  But instead of getting angry I decided to free them of their ignorance and use their questions to teach them the truth.

What better way to help explain where I grew up than over dinner. I offered to cook a very well-known meal in the Bronx, plantain with salami. To my surprise some of my new friends didn’t even know what a plantain looked like, and I loved watching their sighs of relief when they realized they liked it.

Throughout dinner I couldn’t help noticing how different I am from most of my floor mates and how different the environment that I’m in is from home. I have to deal with so many drastic changes all at once. I no longer have the convenience of using my slang from home without having to explain what it means afterwards. Compared to the 10-minute wait for a bus in the Bronx, the hour wait here is hard to adjust to. The quiet nights here make me miss the sounds of cars honking at all hours of the night back home. As different as Buffalo may be I still love it here. The spicy food, the clear night skies with billions of stars in it, the clean streets, it’s all amazing and new to me.

Both Buffalo and the Bronx have their pros and cons but Buffalo is missing one key component: diversity.

In the Bronx, there are so many different cultures and languages coinciding with one another and I never realized how beautiful it was until I was the only Dominican girl in my group of friends here. This is one of the reasons that college is so unique. Not only am I learning inside the classroom but there are also so many opportunities outside the classroom to meet different people and learn about each other.

College has shown me a valuable lesson; there are people who want to help you succeed. I went to a high school where most of my peers were satisfied with just earning their high school diploma. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of just settling for what’s expected of you. However, I always dreamed of reaching goals bigger than what my neighborhood was supposed to limit me to.

I attended Peace & Diversity High School in the Bronx where I got a lot of support from teachers, staff, and friends.

Entering senior year, I knew that I needed to set up meetings with my guidance counselor who always seemed too busy to help me. After being turned away a few times, I had to constantly remind myself that I was one out of sixty students that she had to help every day. I knew that I had to look for help elsewhere. That’s when my math teacher encouraged me to apply to Bottom Line’s College Access Program. It was the best decision I ever made.

My counselor, Ginette, helped me apply for both college and financial aid, and helped me choose the college that was best for me. For the first time I had an outlet for all my questions and honest concerns about college. Although I was assigned one specific counselor I knew that everyone in the office had my back. They had truly become my family away from home.

Buffalo State College has given me the same outlets. There are writing centers, tutors, RAs and professors who always show a willingness to help me when I need it. There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that if I fall off track there is always some where I can go for help.

My goal throughout my time at Buffalo State College is to incorporate a few of the things from home into my daily routine so that people here won’t have assumptions about people from the Bronx anymore. I want to teach people to ask questions and to not rely on the media or ignorant people as their source of information about where I grew up. And I’d also like to learn about Buffalo culture as much as I can and fully immerse myself in the college experience. Maybe when the question, “where are you from?” arises again I won’t be “the girl from the Bronx who’s probably been shot,” I’ll just be Marlin.

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.