2010-11-19 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Jane Addams Teacher Chronicles How NYCDOE Destroyed School With Poison Pill
By Glenn Tepper

Glenn Tepper gave this testimony at the GEM October 26 meeting on school closings. It appeared on the Education Notes online blog.

With this narrative, I bear witness to how, within the span of a decade, a school can go from being so good as to be a finalist in the national New American High School competition, to being named by the New York State Education Department as one of the “Persistently Lowest Achieving” schools in the entire state.

I worked for 36 years, teaching English at Jane Addams High School for Academics and Careers in the South Bronx for the last 21 of those years. I immersed myself in the life of the school, and had the opportunity to serve as conflict resolution specialist, coordinator of student activities, recruiter, teacher mentor, chair of the school-based management team, professional developer, dean, and HIV/ AIDS resource provider, and I was a member of my union’s chapter committee.

Addams is a CTE — Careers and Technical Education — school, what used to be called a Vocational High School. By state decree, the students all must qualify for the same Regents diploma as students in every other high school in the state.

So how does a school lose so much, so fast? By a series of deliberate decisions and acts — poison pills— by the New York City Department of Education, to cause the school to fail.

In the Brave New World of the NYC school system, all high schools are in competition with one another for students, especially competent students. As long as a school had something unique to offer, it could compete. Addams had certification programs for Nurse Assistant and for Cosmetology, and one of the first Virtual Enterprise business programs in the city. The school also had Advanced Placement, Honors, and remedial programs. For a decade, I served as the school’s recruiter. Every school year during October, November, and May, I sought out prospective applicants, at high school fairs, and by going to the middle and junior high schools, speaking to students, speaking to their parents — during school, after school, sometimes nights and weekends.

Addams would attract students from throughout the city, looking for a safe school, a school that had a documented track record of graduating its students, prepared for both college and the workplace.

But then the DoE unleveled the playing field, putting Addams at a severe disadvantage.

Addams was a medium-size school. Under the influence of big money from the Gates Foundation and others, new little schools were created, in the borough and throughout the city, offering programs very similar to those offered at Addams.

The DoE organized so-called “small high school” recruiting events, to which Addams was not invited.

Enticed by real appealing-sounding, yet somewhat misleading names of some of these new schools, and promised the sun, the moon, and the stars, prospective students and their parents were lured into applying to these schools, over Addams.

Then the application process was changed. Under the former process, half of our students were those who actually indicated a high preference, listing us #1 or #2 on their applications, and the other half were randomly assigned to the school. It worked. We had a critical mass of students who were glad to be Addams students, and their enthusiasm rubbed off on many of the others.

But under the new application rules, most of our students turned out to have not chosen to attend Addams; they had been rejected by their schools of choice. For the last several school years, the DoE has admitted ever-smaller incoming 9th grade classes to Addams, causing the school’s enrollment to drop. However, while other so-called “traditional” schools were closing and/or being reorganized, Addams became a de facto dumping ground — the DoE’s place for low-performing, difficult, students.

Down the road, the Addams staff is going to wind up as ATRs — day-to-day substitutes at other schools, maybe a different school every day. Many of them are never going to find permanent jobs with the DoE — some have licenses that no other school will need, like Cosmetology, and Stenography, and Typing.

And there is nothing the union can — or will be able to — do about that. In hindsight, these Addams people should have gone for recertification when they had the chance and the time.

Because for years Addams had a loyal staff in both the academic and the career license areas, many of these veteran teachers will find that they are either too old, or too experienced, or too high up the salary scale, to be attractive to other schools. One former colleague, with over twenty-five years with the DoE, has resigned herself to spending the last years of her career as an ATR.

The school will probably hang on as a dumping ground for three to five more years, with smaller and smaller enrollments and fewer and fewer staff on board.

And eventually, the DoE, in its infinite wisdom, will install three — or four, or five — new smaller schools where there once was one. Yet, neither individually nor collectively will these schools have the diverse experienced staff and the wide-ranging resources and programs that were the benchmarks of Jane Addams High School for Academics and Careers.

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