First Person

The Fruitful Marriage Of Classroom And Community

“The Art of Debate,” “The Four Steps of Social Justice,” “Redefining Rehabilitation,” “Gender and the Media” — they sound like titles of college courses many of us have taken (or wish we could have). But at our school, they were the subjects of a student-created social justice mini-conference that we held this spring.

My colleagues and I challenged a number of 11th-graders to devise 30-minute lessons to teach the underclassmen about social justice. In less than 48 hours, students came up with slideshows, posters, and engaging activities to present to the whole school.

Each session took on its own character. For instance, the one I advised was high-energy with lots of debate about oppression throughout history. Another I watched was marked by a contemplative circle discussion on the Trayvon Martin incident and racial profiling. One had students acting out scenarios where they practiced asserting their constitutional rights when approached by a police officer who wanted to search them without cause.

Needless to say, I was extremely proud. It was one of those precious days when I unequivocally knew our school’s social justice agenda was rigorous, meaningful, and successful. A year and a half ago there were few students or staff who were able to articulate social justice, let alone actively teach it. Now our upperclassmen can eloquently speak it, write it, and teach it.

They don’t just do this within the walls of Hyde. Their interest and mastery of complex social justice issues has earned them awards, internships, and jobs. They’ve presented at the NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators) conference, they’ve been placed in competitive programs, and they have developed working relationships with local politicians and activists.

There are three major elements that had to come together for us to make so much progress: staff buy-in, classroom integration, community partnerships.

Last year our staff collectively defined social justice as a process with four key steps (1. Recognize oppression, 2. Show concern for oppression, 3. Research the underlying reasons for oppression, 4. Take leadership, take action). The steps are posted in a few places in our school and most teachers know them by heart. Now in interviews, our leadership team explains the steps and asks candidates to speak about their connection and commitment to social justice, a practice that did not exist two years ago. This coordinated effort rubbed off on the students.

Though not every course lends itself to discussion of injustices, you can find students engaged with social justice in electives such as our civil rights class. It’s all over art, history, and English. Students do inquiry projects, hold debates, and write research papers that connect to real-world problems that relate to their lives. At a NYCORE conference this spring, our students were asked how they manage to stay interested in school when they face struggle or tragedy outside of Hyde. They replied that our best teachers consistently found ways to integrate the realities of life into the curriculum (even though the realities were sometimes unpleasant). Thus, the students become the text of the class. Suddenly school was no longer this place where you go for teachers to give you a pre-ordained set of facts and worksheets. It became an extension of students’ lives: a place to be consoled, understood, and challenged.

Breaking the school-“real life” boundary could not have been accomplished if we had made Hyde a disconnected fortress against the rest of Hunts Point. My colleagues and I have been working to fuse our new building with the outside community. We have done this by bringing myriad community groups — Iridescent Learning, Project Groundswell, The Point, Rocking the Boat — to tour the school and meet staff members. In this way we gain a familiarity and solidarity with stakeholders. Then we usually bring students down to see the way programs operate.

The networking leads many of our students to connect with programs that help their self-esteem, their resume, and sometimes their wallet. Students get paid to teach science classes to elementary school children and advocate for policy issues. Students have given their time to build boats to row on the Bronx River, coordinate volunteer opportunities with our Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, contribute to a feminist magazine, and travel the world to help the disadvantaged.

I have started to do some recorded ethnographic research about how these partnerships enhance the classroom experience and have found very positive results. Students told me they use what they learn at community programs to educate and engage others at Hyde who might be interested, but not as involved. Another student, who is a member of A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), explained that he chose the topic of police brutality for his five-page English research paper because he knew he would get some information in my class, and then later that evening would get even more sources and ideas from his advocacy group. The marriage of the classroom and community greatly motivated him to complete his paper and write it at a high level.

It is no coincidence that the students who regularly took advantage of the community/school partnerships were the same people who, this spring, planned the social justice classes with alacrity and taught them with passion.

We’re not stopping here. Our goals for the coming year include getting many more students involved in community groups or projects from the start, mandating and facilitating meaningful internships, and more formally recording the results of our efforts through research.

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.