First Person

A college counselor, his students, and the vision of a life beyond poverty: an exclusive excerpt from “Hold Fast To Dreams”

Hold Fast to Dreams traces the paths of 10 low-income students and their college counselor, Joshua Steckel, through the college application process and the four years that follow. 

Steckel, who had previously worked as director of college counseling at an Upper East Side private school, started working at the Secondary School for Research (now Park Slope Collegiate) in 2006 as its first college counselor.

It is rare that public school students have someone to help them through the details of the college admissions process. A 2012 report by the New York City Comptroller’s office noted that over half of all high school students reported receiving college guidance “never, rarely, or only sometimes.” 

Even students who receive good guidance face steep challenges, as do their counselors.

This excerpt zooms in on a fraught moment in the application process: writing the college essay. For low-income students from an under-resourced public school, Steckel knows, these essays are a crucial way to stand out as individuals and to provide context for their achievements. But he is unprepared for the complexity of asking students to write about their lives when, in many cases, they have been shaped by struggle and trauma.

Josh knew that Kennetta and her family lived close to the edge economically. That summer, Kennetta and her friend Chiquita Hamblin had approached him to ask if subway fare could be provided for travel to Let’s Get Ready, the SAT prep program at the school. The student Metrocards they received for travel to and from school only worked during the academic year. Their families had trouble coming up with the extra four dollars each day, they told him, and they knew this was the case for others as well. Josh was able to secure free Metrocards for all the students, and was grateful to Kennetta and Chiquita for their courage in making the request, helping their peers overcome an obstacle he hadn’t anticipated.

The extent of the struggles his second class of seniors faced became even clearer that fall, when Josh began working with students on their personal essays in English class. After graduation the previous spring, the twelfth-grade English teacher, Menucha Stubenhaus, had been hit by a car on Coney Island Avenue, and her leg was seriously injured. Until she was able to return to school, Josh had agreed to cover her classes together with Leah Grossman, the school’s literacy coach.

Josh and Leah began the class by introducing the personal essay and distributing examples written by seniors from the year before. Leah read the class a brief definition she and Josh had put together: “A personal essay is an essay you write about your experiences. Typically, personal essays show how a memory of the past significantly affects the present or the future. They weave together the story with the explanation for why this memory is significant in your life now. Try telling the story of an important memory and why it is important to you.”

Midway through one of the first in-class writing assignments, Kennetta put her head on her desk. Josh walked over and asked, “Why aren’t you writing?” Kennetta didn’t answer. She pushed her spiral notebook toward him. Kennetta had written, in her large, rounded handwriting,

Do you know what it’s like to live my life?

Sharing one room with three siblings, living in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people. Hearing and seeing fights, gunshots all night, yelling and screaming every day. Scared to walk anywhere by myself, not eating for a day or two because we don’t have any money, almost being homeless a couple of times. Going to school trying to keep a smile on my face so my struggles at home don’t show. Having to listen to my friends tell me about their problems and having to encourage them while yet, I’m hurting inside myself. Running to almost everyone I see just for attention to make my pain go away.

That’s my life.

Josh looked back at Kennetta, but her head was still down. He stared at her notebook again, unsure what to say. For a moment he felt removed from the noise and movement of the classroom. Kennetta’s writing pushed back against the future-focused momentum of the college process, asking him, it seemed, to stop, and to try to stand inside her experience.

Josh knew from his first year at the Secondary School for Research how wrenching his students’ essays could be. But Mike, Abby, Kennetta, and others in Josh’s second class of students told stories that revealed with even greater rawness the poverty, trauma, and instability they experienced at home. Chiquita wrote about the day, the year before, when she came home to find her mother with suitcases packed, saying, “Let’s go, C.J.! We’re leaving! Get your things.” Chiquita stopped, paralyzed. Her mother screamed and cursed at her stepfather, then went into the bathroom and attempted suicide. Chiquita described her own psychological reaction:

All that year, I was so focused on my mother, I forgot how to be a kid, I forgot about Chiquita, how the simplest things in life make me smile. Seeing my mother’s pain affected me physically. I didn’t take care of myself, and I blocked out what mattered most to me: my social life, and, most importantly, my schoolwork. I felt like I was trapped in a glass bottle, like no one could be going through what I was going through, like no one could hear me because no one could understand.

Many students resisted writing about painful memories. “Why would anyone be interested in this?” some said, or “I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.” For most students, maintaining their poise meant blocking out the images that reminded them of their vulnerability. Angelica Moore, who Josh knew as high-achieving and charismatic, active in the Senior Committee, and earning mostly A’s, described how in high school her self-possession “was all a front. I can’t even say how insecure I was.” She explained, “I was always told since I was younger not to show my weakness because people will take advantage of it. It’s better to walk around with my head high and make it seem like I have it together.”

Hold Fast to Dreams was published by The New Press in April 2014.
Hold Fast to Dreams was published by The New Press in April 2014.

Angie described how the effort to maintain her “front” in school could be debilitating. During her freshman and sophomore years, she had experienced the sudden deaths of many people she loved. “I turn my head to the left and in a blink of an eye somebody else has died,” she wrote in her personal essay.

When Josh had first seen Angie’s transcript, he was shocked to see that during her first two years of high school she had earned C’s and D’s. Trying to explain why this happened, Angie speculated that “with stuff taking place at home, and then me coming to school and trying to pretend that everything is normal and realizing it’s not—that, I guess, took a toll on me.” Angie remembered with stinging embarrassment when, during her freshman year, she broke down in uncontrollable tears in the lunchroom. “I knew that I never wanted to do that again; I didn’t want to actually break down like that.”

Among their peers in class, reading the personal essays out loud seemed to bring responses of empathy, rather than pity or shame. Janet Wu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, described how in her first two years at the Secondary School for Research, she had only “hung out with Chinese people.” Janet had been the target of incessant bullying, and when she went home to her parents, they would reinforce her fears and stereotypes about the kids who picked on her. To comfort herself, she would mentally repeat what her parents told her, “They are not going to graduate,” or “They’ll be out in the world dealing drugs.” Janet’s circles of friendship had widened as a junior, and now, beginning her senior year, Janet was moved by the essays she heard read and by the responses to her own. She began to see the kids who used to tease her as people with complex lives, and she felt they began to understand her as well. “You could see change, after the essays,” she said. “They would stop picking on me. They started respecting me.”

Copyright © 2014 by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Seckel. This excerpt originally appeared in Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, published by The New Press, and is reprinted with permission.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.