First Person

The New Kid

This piece originally appeared in Represent magazine and is reprinted in collaboration with Youth Communication.

“School is right around the corner,” my aunt said on an unusually chilly August day two summers ago. She tried to sound casual, but I could hear the slight urgency in her voice.

“So?” I replied.

“So, shouldn’t you be registering or something? It’s up to you to take charge and get things done.”

I hadn’t been to a “regular” high school in almost two years. Instead, I’d been going to the small high school at a residential treatment facility upstate, which had few students and a lot of help from the teachers. But now, after moving from the RTF to my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, I was headed to a new high school, probably a bigger school where I wouldn’t know a single person.

I assumed my aunt or another adult would take the initiative and find a school for me. I’d become pretty reliant on someone else taking control since, in the RTF, adults made the majority of decisions for me. It made me uneasy to realize that finding a school was up to me. For the first time in a while, I was making a big decision on my own. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was just one of the many lessons in “self-empowerment” I was about to face.

Self-empowerment means gaining the strength or power to do something on your own; taking control of your own destiny. It’s especially important to youth in foster care because we struggle through more than the average teenager. Moving to different foster homes; dealing with pain, hurt, and frustration; and navigating life without much family support are all things that most foster kids go through. Since we don’t have as much of a support system as most kids, we have to feel empowered to make a lot of life decisions on our own.

Searching for a School

With that in mind, I began browsing the High School Directory book, where more than 400 New York City high schools are listed. (New York City allows students to apply to any public high school in the city, although some schools have requirements that limit who is accepted.) I narrowed down my choices to five schools and asked for some advice from a trusted adult who knows a lot about local schools. He said I should visit a few schools to make sure I chose the one that suited me best.

I visited two big high schools first, but I didn’t like either one because both had more than 1,000 students. I realized that part of making good decisions is knowing myself and knowing what kind of environment would work for me. A huge school might feel overwhelming to me. My next stop was Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School.

I felt optimistic about BCAM because the school had only around 300 students and it had a theater program — both things I wanted in a school. However, when I visited I got a bad gut feeling. The setting was plain, with no murals or collages on the walls. What I did see on the walls were two roaches. I thought that was straight nasty. I wanted to run around the corner to catch the nearest train.

I thought I had seen the worst of it, but then the parent coordinator looked at me and bluntly said, “You’re going to behave now, right, Mr. Turner? No problems, no acting out or anything of that nature?” I blinked at the lady. I hadn’t even said anything, and I felt like I was already being judged as a delinquent? I felt like she’d instantly labeled me.

“No, I won’t act up,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“Good. I don’t want any people misbehaving.” Then she muttered, “There are enough rowdy clowns here.” She left me slightly shuddering.

After that, a student who worked as a teacher’s assistant gave me a tour. I hadn’t even gone 10 steps before I heard a loud, threatening voice say, “Yo! Little boy! Come over here. I’m talking to you, little n-gga!” I was ready to turn right back around and punch his face in, but I just ignored him. I’d been kicked out of one school already for making a verbal threat (one of the reasons I’d been in an RTF to begin with) and I wasn’t ready to get kicked out of another before the first day.

Although I was definitely getting negative vibes, I still wanted to give it a shot. I met my guidance counselor and some of the teachers, and they were warm and welcoming. The teachers were talking excitedly and they seemed sincerely happy about starting a new year. “This school won’t be that bad. Maybe I can do this,” I told myself. With that, I enrolled at BCAM. I was proud that I’d taken on the responsibility of choosing a school and that I’d made my own decision.

First-Day Disappointments

On the first day, I woke up with a sudden burst of energy. I wanted everything to be perfect. I brushed my teeth longer than usual, put on a little cologne, and ironed my pants and shirt three times. I was happy about a fresh start in school and I expected everyone to share in my enthusiasm.

I wanted to become a social icon, the kid everyone knew and loved. I could imagine the scene already: I would walk into class with everyone smiling at me. I would go through the halls, getting a lot of daps from my boys and hugs from the ladies. But when I walked into the building that first day, I realized maybe my hopes were too high.

The school, although small, was intimidating. The other students were guarded and didn’t bother to make me feel welcome, even when I initiated a conversation.

“Do you like it here?” I casually asked one kid.

“It’s all right,” he answered, and the conversation was over.

“Is your commute long?” I asked a girl.

“Sometimes it’s long,” she answered.

Every time I tried, that’s how it went. Their two- or three-word answers instantly dampened my mood. It didn’t get much better on the second or third day, and I was discouraged. I didn’t think I should have to go out of my way to say “hi” when I was the new person. I thought the students who had been in the school since 9th grade should open themselves up more and converse freely.

Instead of being the social icon I’d hoped to be, I felt like a loner and an outcast. (If you’ve ever been the “new kid,” you know what I’m talking about.) Walking the crowded halls felt like walking through a maze that never ended. And there was clearly a social order that I was not part of.

As I shoved my way through the sea of students, I saw the popular kids with their fancy designer outfits and it seemed like they had bulletproof confidence. While all these “popular kids” spread out everywhere during lunch, laughing and having a good time, the kids who were considered “lames” or “virgins” were forced to sit in a small unpleasant area near the garbage.

The “virgins” and “lames” walked cautiously with their heads down, and their voices didn’t sound too confident. I think it was this atmosphere that made kids unwilling to put themselves out there by saying “hi” to the new kid.

Showing Off?

I hoped that at least my classes would be good. At first I was really hype about my science class. I raised my hand a lot — until I realized my peers thought I was showing off.

“You trying to act smart now, boy?” said one guy.

“He just trying to show off,” a girl added, smacking her gum loudly. I didn’t know how to feel. I wasn’t trying to show off; I was just enthusiastic about learning. Was that so bad?

I realized that the other kids didn’t raise their hands much at all. It seemed like even the really smart kids “dumbed down,” and made fun of people who applied themselves. I stopped raising my hand as much and started fooling around in class. It was stupid to follow others, I know, but I wanted to blend in.

For the first three months, I found that I constantly wanted to transfer. I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting, but the school just didn’t feel inviting and I didn’t know how to change my situation. I had worked hard to find a school that seemed right for me, and I was upset to realize that it was going to take time and energy to find a social group that worked for me, too.

I decided to get involved in activities I liked, where I might meet people like me who were open and friendly. I tried joining the basketball team, but I wasn’t good enough. I tried to volunteer as a tutor, but they told me I hadn’t been in the school long enough to tutor anyone. I joined the newspaper club, but almost no one attended the meetings.

When I realized no one came to the newspaper meetings I felt somewhat hopeless. It obviously wasn’t the end of the world, but it was disappointing that writing, one of my favorite things to do, was an extracurricular activity that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy in school. I still felt driven — I thought there must be some club or activity for me to join — but I also felt a tinge of doubt after trying out so many clubs already. I still wasn’t part of things the way I wanted to be and it felt lonely.

Try, Try Again

It took time and persistence, but I did eventually find some groups that I liked: I’m now involved in yearbook and a college-readiness program called College Now. I grew fond of some of the kids in those groups and we started to hang out.

Eventually, I also gave up on becoming a social icon. I realized that it was an entertaining yet unrealistic expectation. And it wasn’t really me, anyway. I prefer to spend my time with a few close friends rather than having 20 acquaintances that I small-talk with.

Realizing this helped me clearly identify the people I like to hang with and who I’m most comfortable with. I ended up making a good friend, Ty, in my English class. Usually, we crack jokes or read parodies off the Web. Having a best friend made my high school experience a little better.

Finding my niche and putting aside the idea that I needed to be a social icon made me feel less stressed. I didn’t have to try too hard to make everyone like me. Also, after watching the popular kids, I saw that popularity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. You need lots of money, fancy clothes, and a certain style to maintain your status. That’s mad work. Of course, I’m still vulnerable to my peers’ influence, but I realize that’s my own insecurity coming out.

Relying On Myself

I’m glad I took the initiative to choose a high school because, although it’s not the best school, it felt good to have some control over my own future. Plus, choosing a school on my own taught me something significant: Taking care of your business is important because there won’t always be a parent or caseworker to guide you.

The same applies to finding your social circle in school. Just because you’re an outgoing and friendly person doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to make friends with everyone in the school. And if you rely on others to define you, you might end up changing your personality to fit in. It’s better to be yourself and, even if it takes time and effort, develop real friendships with people who are loyal, have your back, and respect you for who you are as a person.

The challenge of starting over at a new school is never an easy task, but it’s not an impossible one, either. I’m now in my second year at BCAM. On the first day of school this year, I saw a lot of freshmen who all seemed as enthusiastic as I was my first day. Walking to my advisory class I saw a freshman who was obviously lost.

“Hey you,” I said in a sarcastic but cheery way. She looked all around wondering where the voice was coming from until I walked up and introduced myself. Then I showed her where room 214 was.

“Thank you,” she said smiling. “It’s pretty hard to find people to talk to here.”

I smiled and said, “I know. I felt the exact same way last year.”

Anthony Turner is a student at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School. This piece originally appeared in Represent magazine. It is reprinted with permission from Youth Communication, a nonprofit that aims to helps youth reach their full potential through reading and writing.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.



Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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