Related update on Diane Ravitch’s blog. (9/17/12)
Mayor Bloomberg is trying to kill my school. The New York City Department of Education says it wants to fix the problems in schools, but instead of dealing with actual issues, it’s pulling a full length rug out from under thousands and thousands of students and dedicated staff members in the name of smaller-is-better. However, the “turnaround” method creates a domino effect that can exacerbate problems as well as produce new issues inherent in upheaval and displacement.
Using statistics and data as an excuse, The NYC DoE says John Dewey High School in Brooklyn should be shut down. But the criticism of the school report cards has been loud and varied. And the numbers of failing schools don’t jibe with student achievements. Despite receiving students from areas around Brooklyn that include some of the least wealthy and most needy populations, John Dewey High School continues to improve. The 4-year graduation rate has risen by almost nine percentage points in the last three years. This despite English Language Learners and students with social challenges most of us can hardly imagine. Would you turn up to work on time every day and hand in presentations in pristine condition if you shuttled from shelter to shelter, first dropping off your nine-year-old sister at elementary school half a borough away? Didn’t think so. Good teachers, good schools treat their students like human beings. They are not simply data and numbers to squeeze into a box.
I taught English at John Dewey High School for twelve years. I also served as a Dean (the security kind, not the academic kind) for many of those years. I taught Advanced Placement, Remedial Readers, and I taught classes that included literature from just about any ethnicity/gender/racial group out there. I met teachers and students from all walks of life and from all around the world. I grumbled about beepers (it was the 90s) and then grumbled some more about various types of cell phones and electronic gadgets in the classroom. I like to think that part of what I taught was that it’s okay to make an error – if you learn from it and work to correct it. And I know I taught that by example; writing on the board is not as easy as you’d think.
But what made John Dewey High School special, at least to me, was that despite the difficulties in managing to live and learn in a building that held the equivalent of a not-so-small town (with staff and students we hovered around 4000 at times), people learned. They learned a lot. Considering the student age-range from pre-pubescent, in some cases, to practically able to buy a beer without a fake I.D., students learned and created and laughed and cried. And the teachers did too.
I miss working in that frustrating and empowering and wonderful community every day. My favorite memories involve doing favors for teachers by tutoring a star dancer during lunch, asking favors of students to avoid the bubbling over of a brewing conflict, seeing a group of three mischievous young men return safely to say “Hello” while dressed in United States Marine Corps uniforms, receiving letters from students who felt me worthy of their thanks. I loved listening to an eloquent young woman use “per se” in her everyday conversation – and use it correctly! I experienced quiet satisfaction as a student entered Barnard College, knowing I had a little something to do with it.
I’ve been filled with pride – even a decade later – to hear about the accomplishments of my former students. And I’ve laughed through happy tears to hear about kids we saw far too often in the Dean’s Office graduate from college and come back to apologize for past mistakes. Because, like good parents, good teachers expect a lot from their students.
Thanks to programs like TDF’s Open Doors, my students were able to see Spring Awakening when it was still off-Broadway. I got to take a gorgeous group of students to see Def Poetry Jam – and believe me, you haven’t seen Def Poetry Jam unless you’ve seen it surrounded by these kids.
Fellow teachers and I took 75 Brooklyn teenagers to upstate resorts for three-day leadership trips, and we were asked back – more than once. Let that sink in.
Big schools are not bad schools. They’re not for everyone, but neither are small schools. A large high school allows students to find interests they never knew existed, and to develop relationships with people they would never otherwise have met. A large high school can offer students a wide net of activities for every interest. Teenagers can try out programs like Academy of Finance, Council for Unity, Dance Ensemble, The Publications Institute, The Student Organization, Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA), an award-winning Robotics Program, Anime and Science-Fiction clubs, Fashion clubs, Book Groups with a dedicated librarian, a Classic Rock Club in which the principal plays guitar – well, I could go on and on.
Smaller schools are wonderful, but they can’t offer the same variety of opportunities or population. What is happening in New York City is a hammer’s blow to diversity and opportunity. The motivation is not in the best interest of New York City students. It is not the way to show appreciation to teachers who bring students to higher learning every day. It is not the way to honor staff who help and guide teenagers most adults don’t see as people – just hooligans. Guess what? Every kid, no matter how sweet or troubled or smart or challenged, deserves opportunity and respect. Slamming wrecking balls into the walls of the large high schools with abandon and without thought is another form of ostracizing kids who already feel on the fringes.
Shame on you and your version of education, Mayor Bloomberg. John Dewey High School has heart, and it deserves to continue its legacy of opportunity to Brooklyn’s students.