First Person

Commencement

Commencement is meant to celebrate student achievements, but for me it was an opportunity to recognize the privileged place of a teacher. For me, it underscored the opportunity that small school faculty have to make a profound difference in the lives of disadvantaged students.

Last Monday, the Kurt Hahn School graduated its first class of seniors. It was an emotional day for everyone present to celebrate the accomplishments of these individual students and of our school. My principal’s commencement address mentioned students who had won film contests, had made tremendous academic gains despite linguistic or ability setbacks, or had initiated one of the increasing number of student groups springing up each year. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he remarked, if these triumphs — not mere test scores and teacher performance ratings — were the headlines in our local papers? We can link these accomplishments to our school’s particular attention to character development, but there are countless sets of values we could have chosen and gotten the same results. What makes a small school any different from a big school is the combination of personal attention and cohesion that the adults working there are willing to maintain.

The city’s push to open small schools over the last decade, in large part with funds from the Gates Foundation, was intended to provide students with more opportunity for individualized attention and the opportunity to be truly “known” by a teacher. Having seen this initiative in other cities, I’ve always been especially fond of it here in New York. Like elsewhere, many of our small schools were created with a particular mission in mind. A school in Manhattan that focuses on health professions, for example, ensures that all teachers — regardless of their subject area — has experience or passion for connecting their curriculum to the medical field. Kurt Hahn is one of 10 New York City schools to partner with the organization Outward Bound, providing students with unique interdisciplinary experiences that take them outside the classroom and — whenever possible — beyond the standard curriculum. While I connect better with Kurt Hahn’s mission than any other school I’ve come across, the accomplishments we celebrated at commencement were less the result of our particular philosophy. They were the result of what makes the grade in all kinds of schools every day: dedicated, talented adults building relationships with determined students and then giving them what they need to be successful. Student progress is not impossible in a large comprehensive high school, but to me it feels more likely in a small school.

I thought about this as I watched three Haitian students ascend to the stage to claim their portions of the Kurt Hahn Scholarship, a pool of money collected by faculty and our personal contacts to help students buy college books and supplies. The students — a pair of twins and their inseparable best friend — arrived at our school with no English skills and little in the way of home support. After three years with our English as a Second Language teacher, Ms. Kruse, they were language-proficient and ready to invest their tireless energies in the content of their studies as well as continued English instruction. When one of the twins needed to repeat the English Regents exam in order to pass, Ms. Kruse and the student’s current English teacher teamed up to provide her individualized support throughout the year. It was thanks to a combination of hard work and individualized relationships that all three of these students walked across that stage, their faces beaming with the pride their day-to-day efforts had rarely allowed them. After the ceremony, these students presented Ms. Kruse with a plaque that encapsulated, in eloquent, touching, original English, all she had done for them. I’m not surprised that they were too choked up to explain themselves when they gave it to her: Even I, just watching Ms. Kruse’s students pass my door on the way to her class, can’t quite articulate the confidence they take on over the course of the year as they come to more easily interpret and interact with the world around them.

My principal’s right: This story would never make the paper as a reason why a school has avoided being shut down or why a teacher deserves job protection. But it’s why I’m proud to be a part of a small school — of my small school — whatever my struggles. I want to be one of the few people privileged enough to catch these stories, to learn from them, and to share them with anyone who wants to know.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.