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

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.