the teacher project

At The Equity Project Charter School, a math teacher sees echoes of his past

PHOTO: Aparna Alluri

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force, produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

When 24-year-old Kadeem Gill started teaching at The Equity Project Charter School, he thought it was a temporary stop. Ten months later, he finally turned down an offer of admission from Columbia Law School—a journey that has wound in and out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he grew up a short walk from three public housing projects.

There, he lived with his mother, Mickey Ruiz, who worked full time, and his younger brother, Jonathan. He rarely saw his father.

“I dedicated my entire childhood to getting out of that,” said Gill. Half African-American, half-Puerto Rican, Gill is lean and stylish, with crisp, collared shirts are always tucked in, often under vests, his hair perfectly gelled.

And he did get out—all the way to Princeton University. But something drew him back. His half-brother, Danny, had always told him he would make an “awesome teacher.” After Danny was shot and killed, Gill decided he would listen.

Two years later, fresh from a stint with Teach for America and armed with master’s degree in adolescent special education, he joined TEP to teach sixth-grade math.

Housed in 15 trailers in Washington Heights, TEP is a five-year-old middle school. Nearly 90 percent of its students are eligible for free lunch, a standard measure of poverty, and 20 percent have special needs.

Special education, more than anything else, drew Gill to teaching. Jonathan had severe behavioral problems, and his schools “just didn’t know how to help him,” said Gill. “He didn’t have trouble keeping up in class but he had emotional issues. But they treated him like he had a learning disability.”

As Jonathan grew older, Ruiz found it harder to convince him to take his medication or even go to school. She couldn’t afford counseling. When he did go to school, he got into trouble for acting up in class, kicking down doors and lashing out at teachers.

His outbursts alarmed Ruiz, who remembers locking her door at night. “I just didn’t know how to help him,” she said. “There was nothing nobody could do for me.”

By then, Gill had left for boarding school in Connecticut, where he had been awarded a scholarship. Summer breaks were tumultuous. While his classmates traveled abroad, Gill came home to news that one of his cousins had been stabbed or robbed. And there was Jonathan, who hadn’t taken Gill’s decision to go to boarding school well.

“My brother was just looking to win,” said Gill. “He was asked to comply so much, he started to break rules.” But, Gill added, no one knew how to address Jonathan’s behavior.

Gill vividly remembers attending special education meetings along with his mother. Ruiz would often leave feeling confused, Gill said, because teachers couldn’t help her understand or deal with Jonathan. After repeatedly changing schools, Jonathan dropped out when he was 16 years old.

“The school system failed him,” said Gill, who said he, in return, is willing to “dig and dig to find out what it takes to reach each kid.”

On a recent Friday afternoon in Gill’s sixth-grade math class, Roniel, a student with special needs, and Ruddy were working together in a group. When Roniel refused Ruddy’s help with a problem, an annoyed Ruddy said, “Whatever. You can’t do this work anyway.”

Clearly upset, Roniel stalked away. Gill, who had been watching Roniel closely, asked him to step out of the classroom with him.

Once they were outside, Roniel started to cry. Gill asked Roniel to take deep breaths, then to name a dish he didn’t like.

“School lunch,” said Roniel.

“No, school lunch tastes great,” said Gill.

They argued for a few minutes and then, Gill said, “Have I been able to change your mind about school lunch?” Roniel said no.

“Then no one should be able to change your mind about your abilities and your potential,” Gill said.

For the chance to be that encouraging voice, he said, he is willing to be back home, where he is constantly reminded of a childhood that he once preferred to forget.

“There’s no way I would be the teacher I am today if I didn’t go through what I did,” Gill said. “That I am back where I started is painful and also fulfilling.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.