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.

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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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.