First Person

A tale of two schools: How summer reveals a growing divide

Toward the end of June, I asked one of the students at the school where I am an assistant principal – a public elementary school located in Manhattan’s Chinatown where 95 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch – whether she was looking forward to summer vacation. “No,” was her response. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I’m not doing anything,” she replied. Such is the reality for many of New York City’s 1.1 million schoolchildren, who recently started summer vacation.

One year ago, I stood in a very different place. I was a teacher at a sought-after public elementary school in brownstone Brooklyn where students attend pricey summer camps filled with enriching activities and then go off to vacations overseas, to the beach, or the mountains—anywhere but the sweltering August streets.

This year has been a journey through New York City’s very divided populace; I have borne witness to what Mayor de Blasio called “the tale of two cities.” Along the way, I have become convinced that there are ways that all of us can turn our attention to schools and communities where the need is greatest.

The students at my current school are truly remarkable. Many of them are recent immigrants to the United States; they live in cramped tenements in Chinatown, sharing one room with grandparents and siblings, and renting out additional rooms in their apartments to complete strangers. Their parents work long hours, sometimes out of state. Other students live in the city’s Catherine Street homeless shelter, and despite promises by the mayor to convert this to an adults-only shelter because the conditions are unfit for children, we enrolled students through mid-June whose families had just been placed there by the Department of Homeless Services. Others live in the public housing projects directly adjacent to our school. Parents share stories of their struggles – to find work, to keep their children out of trouble, and to pay for necessary, but not always covered, medical care.

Despite all of these challenges, our students show up to school every day, with smiles on their faces, ready for a new day. And we try to provide them with everything we possibly can. We take them on field trips often; they have drama, art, music, physical education, science, and technology class at least once a week; we offer them enrichment clubs after school. Our teachers try to bring the outside world – to which our students have little exposure, into the classroom. (Second graders, upon disembarking from the subway in Battery Park, asked whether they were now in the countryside, never having seen so much green space in their lives.)

But what about my student’s lack of enthusiasm for summer vacation? Policymakers will argue that there are many programs that try to fill in the gaps for low-income students and families. There’s Medicaid and Title I and city-run summer programs. There are local nonprofits that offer free or low-cost enrichment activities and public libraries that run summer reading programs. There are social service agencies that offer families support and counseling. But these programs and funds cannot plug what have, by now, become gaping holes in our society’s safety net.

The Great Recession exacerbated the precarious situation in which many Americans were already living. It is evident to those of us who work in the public schools that our families are suffering, perhaps even more so than at any other time in recent history.

This suffering has a very real impact on a student’s ability to learn and achieve. No program can significantly alter the impact on a child’s brain development when she lives in a chaotic and stressful environment because her family is doing everything they can to scrape by. The achievement gap will not be closed by the scraps that our policymakers throw at families who are in crisis. Instead, the “haves” – those members of our society who have been content to turn their heads away from our neediest citizens – must begin to advocate for structural change that will improve the lives of the “have nots.”

That means we must raise the minimum wage; provide quality health coverage; offer truly affordable housing; reduce the bureaucratic burden on families trying to get services (the amount of paperwork and appointments that these already-struggling families must keep track of is staggering); and provide eldercare, high-quality childcare, and paid maternity leave. It also means providing before- and after-school programs and continuing to work to improve and integrate our public schools.

While these major initiatives may seem daunting to the average citizen, there are other ways to help the schools with the greatest needs. The families whose children attend my former school, for instance, can focus their energy on communities that do not possess the same fundraising potential, political power, and social capital. They can identify partner schools in high-poverty neighborhoods for which they can raise money, conduct pen pal campaigns, and visit each others’ schools.

Rather than volunteering their time to provide more for those who already have a lot, they can spend time tutoring a struggling student in their partner school, or running a yoga, drama, music, or sports program for those students, either during the school year or in the summer.

These small steps can do a lot to bring necessary attention to the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots in our public system. It won’t fix the problem, but it will force all of us to open our eyes.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

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.