More Than Reading Scores and Stereotypes: The Voices of City Teachers and Students
Education World visited three New York City schools whose students are predominantly poor children who belong to minority groups. Students, administrators, and teachers were eager to share their stories -- anecdotes never included in statistical assessments of their schools. The children offered insights about their lives in and out of school, and the adults talked about their struggle and dedication to help these children overcome challenges.
In frigid, pre-dawn dimness, small figures on an otherwise empty South Bronx street carry or roll bulging backpacks toward a school door that will not open for another 20 minutes.
Some come as early as half an hour before their school, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Academy Charter School, opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. Classes end at 5 p.m., but many kids are reluctant to go home at 6 p.m., the end of a long day.
"They don't want to leave," a staff member says later. "We have to throw them out."
Perceptions of schools in troubled neighborhoods -- and their charges -- dishearten and even frighten most people. They picture dingy buildings overrun by young thugs who have only disdain for their teachers and learning. KIPP Academy, along with two other schools Education World visited on a recent trip to New York City, shatters those stereotypes.
It's no secret that school districts with large populations of disadvantaged students struggle. Reports of dismal standardized test scores headline those struggles, which have become the impetus for policymakers bent on reforming education in a city whose educators face many challenges. Fewer than half of New York City students read above the national average. In January 2001, a state supreme court justice ruled that the state's school funding system is inequitable, creating "an adverse impact on minority public school children."
The people who teach and learn in New York City are more than reading scores and school policies, though. They are real people. Like many students, the students at the schools Education World visited have goals and want to succeed. Like most teachers, the teachers Education World talked to want their students to experience success.
The students, administrators, and teachers at the schools Education World visited were eager to share their stories -- anecdotes no one will read in statistical assessments of their schools. The children offered insights beyond their years, and the adults talked about their genuine love for these children and their struggles to help the children overcome the challenges they face.
At KIPP, a charter school known for its rigorous academic standards and strict discipline, students in the fifth through eighth grades are bombarded with inspirational messages from the moment they arrive. Posters all over the school proclaim: "There are NO shortcuts." "Be Nice." "Work Hard."
Before school opens, faculty members prepare for the day to the strains of a recording of the Boys Choir of Harlem that fills the hallways. Some look a bit weary -- a reflection of the early hour and their long hours at the school. On average, students at KIPP spend 67 percent more time in the classroom than other students in the nation do.
Students dressed in KIPP shirts file neatly and quietly out of the cafeteria after breakfast to a brief assembly. Then they climb four flights of stairs and get right to work.
Eighth grader Giovanni, 13, doesn't mind the long school days at KIPP. The long days will enable him to "get into a good high school," he tells Education World. "When you're here, it keeps you out of trouble. The Bronx, you know, is not the safest place -- this keeps you away from the trouble in the streets."
Although the longer school day initially sounded daunting to Giovanni, he says that he soon became accustomed to it. "When you first hear about it, it's like, 'Oh, my God.'Then you do it and get used to it. The teachers make it fun -- the hours don't matter."
If he didn't spend so much time in school, Giovanni explains, he probably would get his work done at home and then just sit around. His effort paid off, though. Giovanni has been accepted to a Roman Catholic high school in the Bronx to continue his studies.
When Jennifer, another eighth grader, is asked what she would be doing if she wasn't at school, she answers matter-of-factly, "I'd be cleaning and taking care of my brothers and sisters." The oldest of five children, Jennifer helps with child care, cooking, and cleaning.
For many KIPP students, school provides the stability and order their lives outside school lack. One constant is dean of students Jerome Myers, who grew up in Harlem and pushed himself to earn an education.
"I can relate to the students here. I've been there. I know what it's like for them at home. And I tell them 'Don't use excuses,'" Myers tells EW.
Myers explains that he grew up listening to his father's excuses for not doing things. "I hated it that my father always had excuses for everything when I was growing up. I promised myself I wouldn't use excuses."
It is important that the children witness the teachers' attitudes and their willingness to put in long hours with the students. "We have to be living models," Myers says. "They see how hard the teachers work and they want to work hard too."
That work ethic is coupled with a lot of love and caring from the staff, he explains, which motivates students. "Some call me at night just to say goodnight or talk," Myers adds. "It makes them feel important." Several even called January 1 to wish him a happy New Year!
Myers has been at KIPP for four years. He joined the staff after serving as the director of a long-term suspension school. He was looking for a change when he heard about KIPP from a friend on the staff. His career winding down, Myers wanted to leave the profession the same way he came in: with promise and hope for the children.
"They face tremendous challenges," Myers says of KIPP students. "We have kids whose parents or siblings are incarcerated -- some will be the first in their families to graduate from high school. They have to fight to be successful because they are going in a completely opposite direction from others in their lives."
The stereotype of city life is a living reality to some students. "Kids come in and say they hear gunshots at night," says Josh Zoia, a mathematics teacher at KIPP. "They see and hear things no kids should have to experience."
Simone, a 12-year-old seventh grader, soberly acknowledges that KIPP changed her life. "Other schools wouldn't give me the type of knowledge I need in life or to get into a better high school," she says. "In my other school, teachers didn't care if we were crack dealers or out on the street -- they didn't care about our average or whether we went to a good high school." Teachers at her old school had to spend too much time controlling misbehaving students, Simone adds.
The best part of attending KIPP is having teachers who are willing to teach us, Simone explains. "The teachers have the time to listen and care about our future. KIPP got me into the habit of studying," she says.
On this Monday morning, attentive fifth-grade students in Quinton Vance's language arts classroom review the weekly spelling words. An animated Vance writes the words on the board. He makes some jokes about the words, telling students they can get extra credit if they come in with the meaning of sassafras tomorrow. They giggle.
Vance pauses. "I missed you guys too." The students smile. At that very moment, if feelings were tangible, you could reach out and touch the bond Vance shares with his students.
David Levin, KIPP's harried principal, knows the value of that bond. Part of the reason for the success of the school is the connection between faculty and students and the staff's dedication.
During his own 14- to 16-hour workdays, Levin finds time to teach classes and meet with students individually. Phone messages cover his desk, all needing responses.
The high expectations Levin has for himself and the staff extend to every part of life at KIPP. Downstairs in the cafeteria, school security guard Alina Sanchez oversees 248 KIPP students eating breakfast and talking in hushed tones. Missing is the din heard in many other school cafeterias. "These children are wonderful," she says, waving her hand at the youngsters. "They are beautiful."
She is surprised someone wants to quote her. "Why? Everybody knows that they are excellent. Excellent."
Clear expectations about behavior are also part of the school ethos at another South Bronx school, Mother Hale Academy. Classroom structure coupled with a caring staff is part of the rebirth of the school.
This five-story public elementary school for pre-K to grade-five students, built in 1920, was reorganized four years ago because of low student performance. It was assigned to the Chancellor's District, which oversees failing schools. Half the teaching staff left the school at that time as did a number of administrators. Now the school has 70 staff members.
It is a school reborn. It even bears a new name to replace the former numeric designation New York City gives its schools.
"It's our school," says Georgia O'Blines, who has been on staff at Mother Hale since 1984. "It belongs to the children, to the teachers, to the parents and the community. Everyone sat down, and we planned what we wanted. By doing so, we've created a nice nook and cranny here.
"One of our youngsters came up with the name," O'Blines tells EW. "It used to be just a number. The child said we should name it Mother Hale because she loved and cared for children. And we love and care for our children."
O'Blines has seen the school through its tough times and now is enjoying better days. "Our children have seen failure," O'Blines, a mathematics and science specialist, says. "It takes a long time for kids to understand and witness success. Now they're witnessing success."
Second-grade teacher Maribel Betancourt sees a lack of parental involvement as the biggest challenge facing Mother Hale's 648 students. Only about half the parents participate in their children's education; getting more parents involved is key to seeing more results, says Betancourt. "The gap between children who begin school behind their peers is getting smaller, but there are still very essential gaps."
"I talk to parents," Betancourt continues. "I call them. I invite them to come in. I hold parent conferences. But there is a need for parents to sit down with their children for homework."
Veteran teacher Avery Lewis agrees. "This is a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, and there are language barriers. It is very hard for the children to get homework help at home. I make sure I explain it to them."
Lewis goes the extra mile. Every morning, she arrives at school by 7:30, and she runs the after-school homework program two nights a week.
Betancourt is also dedicated to Mother Hale. She is certified in early childhood education, and her qualifications are in high demand. She wants to stay at Mother Hale, however, and make a difference with these students. Betancourt attended Mother Hale as a child, and she strongly feels the need to give back to her neighborhood.
Like KIPP and Mother Hale, Crossroads School on Manhattan's Upper West Side, not far from Harlem, serves as a haven for many of its sixth- through eighth-grade students.
"We can't keep our kids away on snow days," principal Ann Wiener says. "They love it here. They know they're safe. School is the most stable part of many kids' lives these days."
The schools do not tolerate fighting. Students understand what behavior the schools expect and understand that failing to meet expectations has consequences. Students tell Education World that they like attending these schools because they feel safe from aggressive classmates.
April, a seventh grader, explains why she came to Crossroads. "My old school was like a gang school," April says. "My mom wanted me to finish there. This is a safe school."
Ranale, a sixth grader who lives near the school, likes Crossroads because he works harder here and doesn't get into trouble the way he did at the elementary school located on the lower floor of the same building. "I used to talk a lot," Ranale tells Education World. "The kids at my old school like to fight and stuff. My adviser talks to me when I am starting to get into trouble. It helps."
Ranale also likes having fun when he learns. "I like it here because it's more hands-on," he says. "Here we do science experiments. Downstairs, we never got to do experiments." Ranale adds that he is studying chemistry this year. "The teachers here expect more."
Crossroads students also receive help with their work after school and during lunch periods.
Eighth grader Dayhana, 13, says she likes the attention she gets from staff at Crossroads. "It's a very nice school. It's not like other schools. It's smaller, and there are nicer teachers. Because it's smaller, teachers can talk more with you and help you with your problems."
The hands-on philosophy at the school starts at the top, with principal Wiener. In 1990, crack vials littered the school grounds. Wiener and some eighth-grade students pulled on protective gloves and collected the vials. The neighborhood is cleaner now than it was 11 years ago when Wiener and other New York City public school teachers started the school.
The school occupies part of an 1898 castlelike structure that towers over the neighborhood's brownstone buildings. Because the building has no elevator, staff and students alike must make the climb to the fifth floor.
During renovations to the school, work stopped because the city claimed there was no more money. Wiener explains that she knew the money had been allocated, so she threatened to bring a group to protest at a meeting of the New York City Central Board of Education School Construction Authority. Students took the collected crack vials to the meeting. One student, who has since enrolled at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, slowly pushed a bag of crack vials down the table to the city officials. "This is why you have to start work on the roof," she said. "Don't we deserve a safe place to go to school?"
The conditions of the school were less than sanitary when repairs began on the fifth floor. Pigeons nested in the gymnasium ceiling and supporting pillars. Pigeon droppings removed from the pillars filled more than 40 bags, Wiener tells Education World.
When work resumed on the roof, the 60-something Wiener states matter-of-factly, she regularly climbed up on the roof to monitor progress. "You have to keep checking on the work to make sure they are doing it right," she maintains.
Although the buildings that house Crossroads and Mother Hale appear worn, there is a sense of a caring and loving community inside those school walls. "We love the kids," said Rebecca Hendrickson, who teaches math and humanities and performs administrative duties at Crossroads. "At the school where I taught in the west Bronx, there was a hostile environment toward children. Our administrator here loves children. We provide a good atmosphere to learn. We're in the business of caring for kids."
Vivaneskha, an eighth grader, says that caring makes a difference. "The teachers are really, really nice. No one really judges you. When you are feeling down or something, you can just talk [with her advisory teacher and student group]. It's like a little family."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2010 Education World