First Person

Voices: My not-so-good school accountability experience

Littleton mom and author Angela Engel says parents and teachers need to be involved in solving schools’ problems in a meaningful way, not just reviewing data.

As a children’s advocate and education innovator, I’ve been a strong proponent of school decision-making at the local level. So much so in fact, I designed the Colorado resolution to oppose No Child Left Behind and put an end to federally centralized control over neighborhood schools.

The Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, known as CAP4K, required new state academic standards. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

The resolution had bipartisan sponsorship and was passed in the Senate 27-3. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the House Education Committee but never brought to a floor vote.

So last year, I decided to put my time where my mouth is and join the School Accountability Team at the Littleton middle school my two daughters attended. These teams are selected by the administrator and comprised of parents, teachers, students and the principal.

We met once a month for an hour and a half. Our team had three parents, three teachers, the principal and two students. One representative then serves on the District Accountability Team. This was a role I shared with another parent, alternating each month for the two-hour district meetings.

My expectation of the team was that we would make collaborative decisions and explore solutions to various challenges with the education experts – teachers, parents and students. Instead, the SAT served as a function for reporting, not problem-solving. Littleton has prided itself on decentralized management and school-based decision making.

However, when I got to the District Accountability Team meeting, it was even worse.

What about the kids?

The first meeting was a full room of approximately 50 people representing the various schools in the district. We were given a Power Point presentation on everything including district budgets, enrollment, ratings, policy compliance, testing data and calendars.

The first district meeting dealt with how Littleton was complying with the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind. The second meeting was about how Littleton was complying with the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the state law.

It was obvious department folks had spent a lot of time and money on point systems, labels, timelines and pie charts. Each meeting I came away with pretty, colored handouts attempting to explain overly complicated, conflicting and redundant policy mandates.

So at the last meeting I attended, I held up my hand and said, “You know, I joined this committee to support kids learning. All I’ve heard about is how the district is managing federal, state and department requirements. I feel like this is a waste of my time and more importantly my daughters’ education. When do we get to talk about children?”

I think we could do a lot better in education if we spent more time listening to kids and parents too.

There is a major disconnect between what we value as parents and what is passed in department policies and legislation. That disconnect became more evident when I attended the school district policy meeting.

These are the meetings where the decisions are made about which of the 80 education bills introduced by the Legislature will be opposed or supported. At the 7:30 a.m. meeting I attended, there were four school board members, two district personnel, the superintendent and the district lobbyist. Public input is not allowed.

Parents need to be part of policy decisions

There are all these efforts to engage parents, except for the most important decisions. Even more shocking was the absence of teachers – those who know most about students and education.

Here the education priorities and policies were being determined and not a single professional educator was present. I began to see first-hand why many of the state and federal education policies work counter to the goals of schools and the needs of children.

For example, the Colorado Legislature, with unilateral support, passed the law known as the Colorado Achievement Plan 4 Kids or CAP4K. The first two phases will cost $384 million to implement revised standards, new databases and more tests.

Meantime, due to budget cuts over the past four years, $1 billion has been cut from what school districts would otherwise have received.

So while the Colorado Department of Education’s management budget has doubled over the past 10 years, district budgets have been significantly cut. In the last decade, the state department has grown its staff by up to 41 percent as districts have been forced to lay off teachers, in some cases by 30 percent.

What this means is that we are trading teachers, smaller class sizes, computers, counseling services, transportation, after-school programs, athletics, arts, student services and electives for department ratings that can now tell us our children are worse off than before.

The school accountability team was a frustrating experience. By the last district accountability meeting, there was one-third the number of people who had attended the first two meetings.

Schools and communities do not get better through neglect. Parents and teachers need to focus efforts at the policy level for real investments, opportunities and resources instead of punishments and sanctions, innovation instead of standardization and the educational well-being of every child.

Engage, engage, engage. It is the only way.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.