First Person

A Portrait Of A School Whose Aides Were Laid Off

As a special education teacher at a Washington Heights elementary school for the last three years, I’ve made a number of professional connections that have aided me in getting adjusted to the school and to the contours of my job. One of those connections was the family worker. She assisted me with my questions about my students’ services and how to best work with SESIS, the Department of Education’s unwieldy special education data system. Her remarkable memory supplied me with essential details about every one of my students, their parents, and their Individualized Education Plans. Frankly, she was my biggest support in the special education department.

Last month, she worked her last day at my school.

On Oct. 7, three school aides and the family worker worked their last day at my school, cutting the number of aides at my school from six to three and leaving us without a family worker entirely. Losing our school aides unfortunately was just another cut our school of 700+ students and 50+ staff members has had to endure over last three years of budget cuts, which have also shrunk our teaching staff and caused us to lose intervention teachers. But my colleagues and I have been feeling the loss of our school aides every day since the layoffs.

The aides at my school served many functions throughout the school day. The most visible area where the school aides were the greatest help was in the cafeteria. With four periods of lunch with students ranging from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, the aides were watchful eyes and the go-to people if there were troubles at any of the tables. The school aides also helped make copies for over 50 teachers, phone calls to parents to assist the parent coordinator, and plans for parent workshops and special events.

In addition, the family worker worked to make sure CAP (another special education database system) and SESIS were up-to-date and compliant to state and city requirements. She was also the first welcoming face any new student coming to our school after a placement change would see and interact with, and she provided as smooth of a first day as she could. With over 70 students with IEPs and constant new student influx, this was no small undertaking.

Beyond day-to-day tasks, the school aides in general were members of the community. Parents and students knew who these women are because of their presence around the neighborhood. Because they were from the neighborhood, they earned a lot of respect from parents, students, and teachers alike. The students referred to all the aides by either their first names or nicknames their parents and teachers used.

City officials have been quoted saying that principals made the ultimate decisions about school aide layoffs, but my principal said the layoff decisions were “out of her hands.”

The first few days after the layoffs left my school in a state of confusion. I heard rumors from the staff that the school was waiting for an influx of more senior school aides to fill in positions, but no one new came. Photocopying for teachers was put on hold for a few days while administration delegated the school aides’ responsibilities to other staff members. The parent coordinator has been running around and picking up even more duties that the laid-off aides left.

The cafeteria that was once run by school aides is now run by every out-of-classroom, non-cluster staff member, regardless of position. Both the school psychologist and the school social worker complain about having to cover lunch duty for one period each day, leaving both of them scrambling for time to finish a plethora of new referrals. I’ve seen more of the IEP teacher with my students in the cafeteria than providing IEP support.

Nowadays, our school has adjusted to the loss of the school aides just as we have adjusted to the loss of resources and staff members over the last couple of years. With the loss of any staff member with no replacement, the staff picks up more tasks and our jobs get harder. We lose more time to focus on our teaching practice and helping our students.

My co-teacher, who has worked at my school for eight years, assured me that the laid-off aides were all married and will be “fine” financially. What about the family worker, who  came back for a day the week after she was laid off to help the already-overworked special education support staff add her tasks to their own? From what I’ve gathered from her and the other women I interacted with before the layoffs, they were all in good health and supported financially, albeit meagerly.

I can only wish the best in health and finances for her and the rest of the school aides who are out of a job — and for the schools they left behind.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.