First Person

Broadway In El Barrio (And The Bronx) For A New Era

2013-03-11-Aida.jpgFlashback to early last month:

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a cold February night in Washington Heights. The huge crowd outside of the United Palace Theater is anxious about missing the opening number of tonight’s one-night-only “In The Heights” benefit performance. When the show’s writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda races around the block, high-fiving fans and hollering, “We don’t start until y’all get inside!” people whoop and cheer. But our students barely notice their idol blowing by. They’re too wrapped up belting a cappella versions of the show’s greatest hits. Auditions for our school’s production of “In The Heights” are still a week away, but the kids have already memorized the whole score.

In the history of our performing arts program, I’ve never seen kids so amped up about a show before. But then, I can’t say I’m surprised.

For a decade, the kids in our program have been stretching far outside their cultural comfort zones to put on musicals that have little do to with their own life experiences. It doesn’t matter that we’ve intentionally chosen a broad range of shows, including ones that prominently feature people of color, like “Once On This Island” and “Aida.” At the end of the day, the French Antilles and the shores of Nubia are still a far cry from the corner of 172nd Street and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. And each of those shows, like every other show we’ve done — with the lone exception of “The Wiz” whose composer/lyricist is African-American — was created by white people.

It’s not like we weren’t trying to find Broadway musicals that could have hit home more directly. They just weren’t out there.
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So when I first saw “In The Heights” on Broadway five years ago and found a stage packed full of performers who looked exactly like the students I teach, telling stories that Lin-Manuel Miranda could have overheard in our school’s hallways, I knew our students’ response to the show was going to be epic.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think that musical theater’s whole cultural landscape would shift overnight as a result of one show. If nothing else, the almost all-white Broadway crowd around me back in 2008 was a clear indication of how much work remained to be done in terms of access.

But ever since “In The Heights” has been on the scene, I’ve been less worried about young African-American and Latino actors coming out of our program after playing lead roles in “Les Misérables” only to find that their best hope in the professional world is getting cast as “Thug #3” or the lead character’s “Sassy Best Friend.”
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We’ve had to wait the better part of five years for the amateur licensing rights to “In The Heights” to become available, but the time has arrived. And now we’re kicking off our creative process with a field trip to see the original Broadway cast show us how it’s done.

As we finally make our way to our seats inside the United Palace Theater, one of my students looks around at the capacity crowd, does her best “Home Alone” shocked face and nudges me playfully. “Yo, Ms. Q,” she says, “There’s a lot of black and brown people in here!”

A combination of the show’s widespread popularity and organizers’ efforts to reach a broader audience with $30 tickets for Upper Manhattan residents means that the crowd is more diverse than any group of theater-goers I’ve ever seen. (And there’s reason to hope that this demographic shift may be part of a wider trend, since the evening’s proceeds benefit The Broadway League’s Viva Broadway initiative, a new audience development partnership with the Hispanic community to help bridge the world of Broadway with Latino audiences around the country, as well as Family First Nights, a nationwide program specifically designed to encourage at risk families to attend theater on a regular basis.)
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The rest of the evening is a blur. The audience is cheering and singing along throughout most of the show. Actors pause before the big laugh lines so the audience can shout them out en masse. At the curtain call the whole place leaps up, dancing to the music and waving Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican flags. We haven’t come prepared for this Rocky Horror Picture Show-level of audience participation, but we join in happily.

The emotional high of the evening sets the scene perfectly for auditions for “In The Heights” at our school. This year’s turnout is enormous and includes an unprecedented number of first-time participants.

At the callback, one 12th-grade newbie named Chris says,

There’s no way I would’ve considered trying out if we hadn’t been doing this particular show… Let’s just say musical theater was never really my thing. But being Dominican, these characters and the stories they’re telling through the music and the dance all really hit home for me.

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Once auditions are behind us and rehearsals begin, the students show up with a level of professionalism and initiative unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Gone are the days of pulling teeth, begging actors to get focused and learn their lines. These kids are off-book at the first read-through, leaping up to perform each song fully memorized with provisional blocking and improvised choreography already in place.
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When our leading man discovers that Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has “liked” a rehearsal photo of him posted on Facebook, his comment is the following:

“Omg omg omg, my heart’s gonna blow up!!!”

And while I like to think I’m immune to celebrity worship, here’s what I comment back to him:

“Yeah. I feel you, dude. Me, too.”

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.