First Person

My neighbors told the New York Times that going to our local school is ‘malpractice.’ We picked it anyway

PHOTO: Mia Simring
The view of P.S. 145 from the author's apartment building

This is the third entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

I knew schooling would be a sticky issue for my husband and me. He was raised by two public school teachers, opted out of his zoned school to go to a less well resourced one, and saw active engagement in the public school system as a duty of citizenship.

Meanwhile, I had been raised by striving parents and sent to the infamously elite Horace Mann School, where I was decidedly not in with the in-crowd — and I loved it. I loved that if I could dream it, I could write up a proposal and get a budget for it. I loved that I found my home in the out crowd, the goths and punks and nerds and theater kids. But I don’t think Horace Mann ensured my or my classmates’ success later in life.

So when we realized late last year that my daughter, born in the last week of 2012, could be entering kindergarten in 2017, I tried to keep an open mind, unclouded by the terrible things my mother had always said about public school. The fact was, my husband and I shared the primary goal of finding an educational setting that would first and foremost support our daughter’s social and emotional development. We realized this might have been different from our (and especially my) parents’ goals. We decided to first look at public schools, since we figured we would have the option of starting her a year later if she went to private school.

We started with P.S. 145, the school across the street from our apartment in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood of the Upper West Side. We see into the classrooms from our windows, and occasionally hear music classes in the morning. I didn’t expect to like it, not because of anything I had observed, but simply because no one I knew liked it. Anyway, the test scores were abysmal, some of the lowest in the district. I figured we would do our due diligence, then send her to private school next year or push for a spot at the progressive and beloved Manhattan School for Children, a public school that accepts students from across our district. That’s what so many other families like ours do, including our neighbors whom the New York Times profiled recently in a story about the complexity of school choice.

When we went to P.S. 145, I was stunned. Where were the disciplinarian teachers yelling at the kids? The overcrowded classrooms? The sheer lack?

The fact is, I was charmed by the abundance and diversity of student artwork, not only in classrooms but throughout the common spaces. I was impressed that each student has art, music, and dance each week, and that the goal is to build kids’ confidence not only as artists, but as people. The Studio in a School art teacher explained how they do an art school-style critique at the end, where students are encouraged to make observations about their classmates’ work. She also told us that they displayed not only works the students were most proud of, but also pieces they might feel ambivalent about, to show that all kinds of artistic expression can be appreciated. There was a new TV studio with a dedicated and very enthusiastic educator, Mr. Hunter, who would help teachers and students integrate video projects into their academic work. There were two dual language tracks. The teachers seemed happy and kind, and the students did, too.

But there were a few things that irked me. First, there was the giant “Merry Christmas” banner that greeted me in the lobby. Yes, there were some nods to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa throughout the school, but as a religious Jew, I was uncomfortable with how Christmassy it all was.  Second, because of timing, we hadn’t seen a lot of actual classroom instruction. Moreover, there was a typo in an assignment posted on the wall. I’m nitpicky like that.

Still, the arts programming and the overall positive environment attracted me for our daughter. People had warned us that P.S. 145 was the bottom of the barrel — so I was excited to move on to the higher-tier public schools!

Manhattan School for Children was next on our list. It was recommended by parents that we love and respect as friends and mentors. The parent volunteers spoke my language: “progressive education,” “constructivist philosophy,” “integrated curriculum.” I was swooning.

But, by and large, I did not see it borne out in the instruction. Yes, the school was lovely (oh, that greenhouse!), but I didn’t see the progressive instruction I was craving. I saw frontal instruction over and over again. And while the parent volunteers talked about process-over-product oriented arts, the integrated curriculum meant that the arts (at least what we saw) were in service of the academics. Instead of seeing students given materials and challenged to create, we saw assignments that asked them to, for example, make a cloud out of cotton balls or build papier mache globes. And the classes were so big — 27 kids per classroom, as compared to the 18 kids in P.S. 145 classrooms. My daughter tends to get lost in the crowd — and lost in her inner thoughts — so opportunities for an adult to make eye contact with her were important to me.

Then, my husband pointed out that of 27 kindergarteners, only two were kids of color. I wondered how that could be, given the school’s blind admissions lottery and the demographics of the people we see in the neighborhood every day. Again, the school was fine, but after all the hype, I wondered: Is this really what we wanted?

My mom used to say, “People in New York always talk about real estate and schools.” This year was the year of the latter for me. I talked to everyone I could. On the street, a friend introduces me to an Manhattan School for Children parent: “They are really trying to reduce the amount of homework they were giving, because studies show homework doesn’t really help elementary school kids.” Hey, I said to my friend, who still has a few years before this applies to her, P.S. 145 also doesn’t emphasize homework for that very reason! She shakes her head. “So it’s all art and no work?”

At kiddush (the post synagogue social-hour), I overhear a parent talking about P.S. 145 positively. I am thrilled. As we talk, though, it turns out she is only considering the pre-K. “I would never send her there for elementary school.”

While out sledding, my daughter befriends a Upper West Success Academy student. Her dad tells me that he’s concerned about the amount of homework at the charter school, but they didn’t want to send her to a school with no homework, and while there were some OK public schools in Harlem, where they lived, he didn’t want his daughter to be the only white kid. “Why not?” I ask. I really want to know — after all, that might well be the situation for my daughter — and when choosing a school, I thought all questions were on the table. All of a sudden though, it got cold and everyone decided to go their separate ways without addressing the question. I had killed the conversation.

After more and more school visits, my husband and I narrowed down our options to P.S. 145 and Beit Rabban, a progressive, private Jewish school that we also fell in love with. Of course, as a Jewish school, Beit Rabban had limited diversity, but it offered an outstanding Jewish and general education. We knew everyone there. And yet.

A rabbinic colleague of mine suggested sending my daughter to public school — there was no loss for us if it didn’t work for our family and we switched to Beit Rabban further along, which was what happened (at a different Jewish school) for her family. She had also felt strongly about public education, but it wasn’t right for her son. That sounded sensible enough, but before committing, I wanted to meet P.S. 145’s principal, Dr. Russo, who hadn’t been on the tour.

My husband and I arrived and sat at a large table in her office. I noted a sign reading, “I’m silently judging your grammar.” Snarky meme though it may have been, it spoke to me.  I mentioned that I liked it to break the ice. “Me too,” she said. “Most people don’t, though.”

We sat awkwardly looking at each other. She seemed so much younger and more serious than I was expecting.  Also, she didn’t seem to have a pitch. “So … what brings you here?” she asked. “We are prospective parents, and we wanted to know whether this school would be a good fit for our daughter,” I prompted her. “What would you like to know?” she asked. I was panicking. This was bad. At this point, we had seen so many eager-to-please-and-run-to-their-next-meeting principals that this was a stark contrast. My husband started with some softball questions, then I got more detailed. Soon enough, she took the lead, and laid out an impressive vision for a school that could meet the needs of children from all economic backgrounds, including those in temporary housing. She talked about how class sizes were intentionally kept small, and how she used a discretionary budget to have a long term substitute as a second teacher in the already small classrooms. She talked about continuing education for teachers. She said all the teachers knew all the students. On top of that, there was time every Tuesday for parents to meet with their children’s teachers. I was impressed that she had planned and implemented so many positive initiatives.

We enrolled my daughter in the public school across the street. I am not going to pretend to know I have made the right decision. No one making a match for a four-year-old should have the hubris to believe they know for sure. And I recognize that I hold a tremendous amount of privilege to have the certainty of a private school Plan B if anything, including supplementary Jewish education, isn’t working right for our child.

One thing I am pretty confident about? I’ve spent more time inside P.S. 145 than the finance lawyer who was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I feel like it would almost be malpractice to send my kids to school” there.

And as I saw a group of kids and teachers make their way from the school into Silver Moon Bakery for a kitchen tour, it seemed the loveliest thing to imagine my daughter joining them and exploring the world around her.

Mia Simring is a rabbi living in her native New York City, where she and her husband are raising two fourth-generation New Yorkers.

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.