First Person

My kingdom for a parking space. Oh, never mind

My first teaching job was in a pretty rough school. So imagine my surprise one day when one of my colleagues said, “This is a great school to work at.” I waited for him to elaborate and tried not to fall over. He added, “Because of the parking!” He was right about that. We had a small section of the street that was reserved for teachers, but there was also ample street parking. The issues at that school were too vast for me to consider staying, but I still miss the ease of parking there.

Being a perpetual early bird, I didn’t find it too difficult to park when I transferred to my current school 10 years ago, even though there was a lot less street parking that wasn’t reserved for the school. I had my placard and usually had no problems, save for the very rare occasion when there was an accident on the Cross Bronx Expressway and I arrived later.

Much as we loved the city, my husband and I decided to buy a house and were unable to afford the city. We decided to head north, to Putnam County, where our daughter could have a yard and a small-town childhood. Since I loved teaching in the city, and still do, I didn’t look for a new job. Once I’d left Queens, I found myself leaving earlier than ever, but I wanted to make sure I could get a parking spot. And I have always relied heavily on that hour before school to get myself mentally ready for the day and set up any materials I needed. I am also neurotic about punctuality and am almost never late.

This worked well for me until last fall, when Mayor Bloomberg decided to strip most of our parking passes, citing abuse and a desire to see more people using mass transit.(I am not sure how one can abuse a Department of Education parking placard; I did once park in a Red Cross spot next to Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, and I got towed faster than you can say “parking pass.” It was my own fault because I didn’t read the sign carefully enough, but is it abuse if you’re ticketed and towed?)

After our current passes were revoked, I found myself leaving home earlier than ever, but I still had to loop around the neighborhood until I found a space. More than once, I crossed my fingers and took a questionable spot, hoping I wouldn’t find a ticket when I got out. Sometimes I was lucky, more often not.

I suppose I could have paid to park in the lot near my school, but I have a philosophical problem with paying for something that suburban teachers get for free, even though our salaries are supposedly on par with theirs. And I was already spending a lot of money on gas. On average, I drove around for 15 to 20 minutes, wasting gas, looking for a spot, but more important, I wasted time that would have been better spent in my classroom. My commute, an hour from door to door, was extended substantially by the time I spent looking for a parking space.

Each month, I’d wait hopefully for my name to be pulled out of a hat so that I could take my turn with one of the eight passes we were issued, to be shared among 30 teachers who drove. Three times since the fall of 2008, the parking placard fairy smiled upon me. During those months, I got more work done. I drove up to the school, parked, and went inside, just like I used to, with a full hour or more to grade papers, organize my classroom, or write lessons. This left about 12 months during this school year and last that I did not have parking privileges. The number of placards my complex got from the city was also way out of line with the number of spaces we estimated ourselves — it seems like there is space for 10 more cars but of course, since we don’t have enough placards, we can’t use those spaces. My UFT chapter leader told me that the city estimated 20 feet per vehicle. Since most of us don’t drive stretch limos to work, that estimation seemed a bit high.

In February, fed up with the situation, I decided to start taking the train. Though I have to be out the door at 5:30 a.m., so that I can arrive in Melrose by 7:30 a.m., there are definite benefits. Most important, I get a lot of work done during the ride. It’s less stressful than driving, especially in the winter months. I spend about half the ride home reading a book of my choosing, which helps me unwind. When I get home, I’ve done nearly everything I need to do for the next day and can devote myself to spending time with my daughter. When I was driving, I would have to bring home the work I didn’t get done because I was looking for parking, which left less time for her. Due to the train schedule and the length of the train ride, I now arrive home an hour later than I used to, but my daughter gets 100 percent of my attention from the minute I walk in the door. I usually have to do a few minor things, but there’s time after she goes to bed.

Ironically, my commute by train is shorter and easier than it was by subway. When I lived in Queens, it took an hour and 45 minutes, and involved a bus, two subways and a walk of several blocks. Now, it’s two commuter trains and a very short walk and an actual lot where I can leave my car. Living and working in the same city does not automatically equal an easy public transit commute, especially for those who have children, attend school or have other obligations.

I am grateful that the train has worked out for me. It’s not perfect, though. If my daughter gets sick during the school day and needs to be picked up early, it may pose a problem because the trains run very infrequently from my school. My first train leaves from my town and the second from White Plains, but for two weeks in a row my first train had mechanical problems, which led to me missing my train from White Plains, which led to me being late. It’s ironic that I’ve been late more often using public transit than I was when I was driving. Fortunately, I have an understanding principal.

If our parking passes were restored tomorrow (I know they won’t be; in fact, I wonder what we’re going to lose next) I would still continue to take the train, but I would be grateful for the flexibility of being able to drive if I needed or wanted to. I had to pass up a music class that I wanted to take with my daughter because the train won’t get me home in time and the class is held on the worst parking day of the week. I still feel for my colleagues who were not able to find a solution like mine. They are still spending lots of time driving around, looking for spots — time that could be better spent on other things. If the situation weren’t so frustrating to so many of us, maybe we’d laugh at the fact that parking is considered a perk and not a necessity.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.