First Person

After One Space Shift, Our School Contemplates Another

At the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters — the decade-old unscreened district secondary school in the poorest Congressional district in the country, where I have taught for the last six years — we do a good job with a tough hand. The work here is big and challenging, and the people are wonderful.

But every year, another policy-level challenge makes our already difficult work seem nearly impossible. First it was massive budget cuts, then centralized layoffs of school support staff, a special education overhaul, rotating teachers sent from the Absent Teacher Reserve (but not enough money to hire them!), and rising numbers of mid-year over-the-counter transfer students. Now, the challenge is a second year of space changes planned by the Department of Education.

Like many other public schools in the city, our school shares space with three others: a District 75 school for students with disabilities in grades K-8; a district middle school; and as of this year, a charter elementary school. After less than one year since the last space shift, the Department of Education has proposed two big changes: The district middle school, M.S. 203, will phase out over the next two years, and Bronx Success Academy 1, the charter school, will expanded to eighth grade over the next five years.

Though the individual teachers, students and staff from the other schools in our building have been respectful, generous neighbors, the system-level decisions about space and co-location have resulted in serious concerns for the Bronx Letters community. While the city’s planning documents say that our “enrollment will be unaffected” and that we will “be able to continue offering the current academic program,” our experience over the last seven months has shown us that is unlikely to be true.

We only have one chance to convince the Department of Education to recognize Bronx Letters in its space plans going forward: a public hearing – at 6 p.m. on Valentines’s Day! To prepare, our high school House Council student government representatives planned “community education” activities, with my help. Almost every advisory group in the school engaged in a facilitated discussion around the following three questions: 1) What do you appreciate most about Bronx Letters? 2) What are your concerns related to the proposed changes in our building? 3) What is something you’d like share about your experience at Letters that could affect decision-making about our shared space?

Together, they turned their answers into statements that could be presented at the public hearing. The statements, excerpts of which I am sharing here, reveal the profound effect that co-location and space allocation policies have on the learning and growing that happens in a school building. Even if the negative consequences of sharing space are unintended, they are deep and wide — and can truly change a school. I’ve seen it happen, and so have my students.

***

Quin, 11th grade:

I am a Bronx Letters student and because I have a little sister in Bronx Success Academy, I can honestly say I understand that there are many sides of this issue. This is very hard for me and my family. We understand that Bronx Success wants to grow to eighth grade for a better future for their students, but we are both great schools and both want to remain that way! We want all the schools in the building to be treated fairly.

Since Bronx Success moved in, the number of students in the same classroom has increased. It is becoming harder for teachers to teach and harder for students to learn when the teacher can’t meet every child’s needs. Without the space we used to have, the classes will only get bigger and harder to manage.

Ashley, a junior:

Our school is now spread out through the building, breaking the community that the middle and high school here has worked very hard to create. … Bronx Academy of Letters has not been and is not the same place it was five years ago. Not only does this affect me now but this would affect my future. What I want to be and what I have always wanted to be is a dancer. I want to major in dance in college and make it my career choice for the rest of my life. As a junior I no longer have access to the dance room in my schedule. This has never been true in my six years of being at this school. Last year I was not given dance as a class but I was allowed to have access to it during lunch. This too is no longer true. During our lunch period, another school is having gym in the dance room! … What’s going to happen when I have college auditions and nowhere to rehearse for an audition that determines my future?

Tajonae, eighth grade:

This school year, the seventh and eighth grades moved to an area that has tiny classrooms and small hallways spaces and we are always bumping into each other, which causes conflicts that could have been avoided. Every time I am in a classroom, no one can walk around the classroom without bumping into something or someone…

Fatoumata, eighth grade:

Bronx Letters is supposed to be a family and now the middle school and the high school don’t interact that often. We want to be less spread out and have spaces that are connected to one another … Now, rooms are being used ALL the time. Students have a hard time finding teachers. One on one time with teachers is very difficult because there is literally nowhere private they can meet.

Ana, ninth grade:

We have so many opportunities to be successful in our future. One of them is office hours, which is like tutoring that all teachers have during lunchtime on Tuesday and Thursdays. You have no idea how helpful these are to me to improve my grades and my understanding of in my classes. Sometimes even now office hours is hard because there are too many teachers in each room and we can’t get any attention. But this school is already amazing by trying to help us. Please don’t take that away from us. The space we have is already small and crowded. We make the best of it but if things change too much, one of the things we might miss is office hours!

Kyesha, 11th grade:

One of the reasons why I decided to stay at Bronx Letters for high school is because I felt comfortable. By the time I got to the ninth grade, I already knew some of my high school teachers and, even better, some of the high school students, which made it easier to transition into my new high school experience. Now, being a junior, I look at the middle school students and have no clue who they are, which is breaking the school community that we once had. It is also frustrating to see that our seniors have to stay outside during ANY weather because there is no supervised classroom for them to be in to eat. I will be a senior next year and don’t know how well I am going to take having to eat my food outside in the snow. Also, during lunch time we have to wait in the hallway until the other school leaves, the cafeteria is cleaned up after them, and if the cafeteria staff is ready for us to come in, which takes about 15 minutes of our lunch time with nowhere to go.

Delquan, eighth grade:

I have been at the Bronx Academy of Letters for three years and have witnessed many changes between last school year and this one. We have been forced into the corners of this building and we don’t have enough space. When we are released from classes, we’re all on top of each other and if we had more space, we could avoid conflict. Our school is divided into different parts of the building and I don’t know the other students in our sixth grade or in high school so it’s harder to make friends outside my grade.

Destiny, eighth grade:

We also have to wait and wait to go into our Math class and you know why? Because we have teachers sharing EVERY classroom. The teachers have no time to set up their lesson plans. All of this space loss is hurting our learning environment.

Roxanna, eighth grade:

The hallways get cramped in between periods, and kids shove, push, etc. That leads to conflict and problems and we can’t ever get away from each other. Most of our classrooms don’t have windows or heating. One of my favorite classes is gym and I have to share the gym with four schools! It is very cramped and we are sometimes getting hit with basketballs. Some of our classes like Drama, Math and Health are in very small rooms because all the other rooms are being used. How are we supposed to focus in small, sweaty rooms??! Our grades have dropped because of this. We need a bigger, more comfortable environment to learn and study in.

The juniors of Bronx Academy of Letters Thomas House Advisory:

Last year, our advisor was saying that we were going to lose space because Bronx Success Academy was moving in. We felt like we had no say. We were scared, frustrated, and disappointed after we had written letters begging to keep our space and explaining all of the extra-curricular activities and opportunities we would risk losing. She left a few months later saying that she didn’t like the way that the school was going.

Now, here we are again. This year there is a new advisor asking us to do the same thing. We feel like our education is threatened and are afraid that when we, the class of 2014, return to visit after graduating, we won’t have a school to come back to. … Part of the reason why schools in this area aren’t offering a strong education to students is because of problems like this. We want our concerns and voices to be heard and to think of compromise so that our school can be successful and Bronx Success can offer the best education possible as well.

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.