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Positive School Culture, Not Metal Detectors, Keeps Kids Safe

Gotham Gazette

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Two boys’ lives are obliterated after Abel Cedeno, age 18, used a switchblade to stab Matthew McCree, 15, and another boy who had reportedly been bullying Cedeno during their history class, as classmates looked on. McCree was pronounced dead shortly after. Cedeno was arrested on charges of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, assault and criminal possession of a weapon. After a brief court appearance Cedeno was held without bail and his lawyer requested a psychiatric evaluation and that he be placed on a suicide watch.

This extreme incident of school violence and loss of a young life is shattering to many, including students and teachers in the school -- the Urban Assembly High School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx -- and students and teachers across New York City who imagined this horrific event as the media presented it to us.

The murder of a student in a school, the very institution that is charged to educate and nurture children, underscores that current policies leading to high concentrations of poor students, many with special needs, in de facto segregated schools, do not allow schools to safeguard children's lives, let alone meet their potentials as democratic organizations and pillars of our society.

But without politicians, education leaders, and the public acknowledging the core issues at play in such schools -- devastating poverty, unemployment, stress of the working poor, violence, underprepared and emotionally traumatized youth, among others – and calling for an end to Department of Education practices that place high concentrations of poor and special needs students in segregated schools, there will continue to be disastrous failure. As education scholar and activist Pedro Noguera put it, school reforms cannot “ignore the unmet social needs of children” related to concentrated poverty. When they do, students fail and are failed by the school system.

When the tragic story in the Bronx broke, the most immediate and loudest response was demand for more metal detectors. Why did the school not have them, devastated and outraged parents wanted to know. What went wrong? Who is to blame?

There are those who blame inadequate school security, including the lack of metal detectors. Others accuse the two boys who allegedly taunted Cedeno in class. Others blame the attacker’s family, his background, his mental state. Others accuse the new principal of poor leadership. They all miss the central lesson of this tragedy. Ultimately, a deprived school culture is at the heart of the horror that led to the death of a student at Wildlife.

Incidents like these rarely happen in the moment but are the result of weeks, months, or years of intersecting and harmful factors at play. To have a full understanding of what went wrong that day, a multidimensional examination is required, as this incident is embedded in economic, social, demographic, historical, political, and educational factors that, when entangled, lead to less publicized tragedies in schools across this city.

Relevant demographic data about the 585 students at Urban Assembly High School for Wildlife Conservation includes: the student body is 71 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, and 27 percent students designated learning disabled in some way. Nearly one-third of the students in the school have special psychological or cognitive needs. Fully 100 percent of the children in the school are eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning that all of them are poor.

The school’s college readiness rate is only 23 percent, meaning that less than one in four students are prepared for college upon graduation. Seventy-four percent of the kids report there is bullying in their school. Only 21 percent of the kids say classmates treat one another with respect. Just 31 percent of the teachers in the building report that they trust the leadership, including the principal. The leadership had essentially been a revolving door for three years, with an exodus of teachers and instability infiltrating the school community at every level. (Data found on Insideschools.org.)

Based on news accounts, comments by former teachers at the school and independent reviews by Insideschools.org, Wildlife has a culture shaped by poverty, segregation, neglect, attitudes from inside and outside the school building about poor kids of color from the Bronx, and a system that “dumps” high concentrations of students in poverty, many with special needs, in one building and not another.

In this school, as in other New York City public secondary schools I have taught in or visited over nearly 30 years, many teachers care deeply about students and work tirelessly to help them succeed. But, no matter how deeply a teacher wants her students to succeed, teachers’ work is inevitably shaped, and limited by, the social, economic, historical, and political dynamics of the school itself, by the approach to school leadership employed, available resources, and oftentimes school size (small schools can offer adolescents a sense of community, which they usually require to thrive).

The teachers at Wildlife work in a school where the vast majority of students do not experience success in an academic setting, many repeat Regents classes and exams, and many struggle with reading, writing, and meeting grade-level standards, which many of them feel are unattainable, impossible, perhaps futile. Rather than having a culture of success, schools such as Wildlife become environments where both students and teachers learn to cope with degrees of failure, with the “opportunity gap” often the elephant in the room.

One can enter a school building and know fairly quickly whether or not it is an effective and positive place for learning, teaching and kids. School leadership experts describe positive school cultures as having “a shared sense of purpose and values” and supporting “continuous learning and improvement.”

Ultimately, a “good school” has a caring and positive school culture ensuring that students are heard, seen, cared about and pushed to develop. In a “good” school, all adults understand that relationships matter in learning and the leadership supports the development of positive and caring relationships among teachers, students, and their families. This includes a commitment to viewing students as multifaceted young people who are more than their test scores and school preparedness, so they can be supported to develop in positive ways through adolescence and into adulthood.

In the business community, it is widely accepted that efforts toward building a positive work culture can lead to increased innovation and productivity. Such truths are well-known, but how they can be applied to a high-poverty school setting is merely an academic exercise if the school faces a barrage of stressors -- including high percentages of kids with cognitive or psychological needs, high concentrations of underprepared and underachieving students, emotionally traumatized youth, violence, and de facto segregation -- as is encountered at Urban Assembly High School for Wildlife Conservation every day.

Schools like Wildlife face a “perfect storm” that cannot be tackled by strong school leaders, devoted teachers, and installing metal detectors. The problems Wildlife faces were created over time by a multitude of attitudes, policies, and practices that link with societal issues confronted by poor, minority communities across New York City, and originated beyond the walls of the school building. Who or what is to blame for the killing of a boy in school? The destruction of these two young lives call for an answer to this question and the search for honest solutions.

Sonia E. Murrow, a former social studies teacher in New York City, is an associate professor of education at Brooklyn College.

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Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One

Sandy devastation

After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”

As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.

The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.

Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they're entitled to receive?

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.

Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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My Crowded School, Like Many Others, Needs a Plan

de blasio graduation crowding

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Well-regarded New York City schools are super, and they can do anything. At least that's what they seem to think over at Tweed, home of the Department of Education (DOE). That's why my school, Francis Lewis High School, has 4,683 students at my last count, more than ever, in a building designed for 2,400. We're seen as successful, so a lot of families want their kids to go there. Generally I've agreed, but it's getting to a point where I'm not sure.

I’ll admit outright that I’m partial to our school. I’ve been there 23 years and I’m one of its biggest cheerleaders. Nonetheless, our situation is far from unique. According to DOE data, 550,000 students, fully half of those in the city, are stuffed into overcrowded schools.

How bad is it? Last week I counted 101 oversized classes. That's better than the 268 I counted the first day, but hardly ideal. Ideal, and also mandated by union contract, by the way, is zero overcrowded classes. Every single teacher, as well as basic arithmetic, will tell you that the fewer students there are, the more attention individual teachers can give individual students.

With new students walking in each and every day, and enrolling in the school, I’m not ready to celebrate just yet. The whole process fills me with something not remotely resembling optimism. I’ve counted classes of over 40 students. The city already has the highest class sizes in the state. Thirty-four, becoming the standard rather than the exception these days, is tough. Over 40 borders on impossible for a mere human, and is no help whatsoever for struggling students.

We have two rooms that are converted closets. They have no windows. Inside are indoor air conditioners and HEPA filters designed to make them more bearable. In practice, the A/C units are so loud that they preclude instruction. Some teachers turn them off whenever conversation takes place. Via inertia, they tend to remain off all the time. On sweltering days they must border on torture chambers.

The principal, to his credit, has given up his conference room to be used as a classroom. There are mostly honors classes in there so as not to freak out teachers who have a thin wall with the principal sitting on the other side. It's not quite perfect, though, particularly when the classes are oversized. It’s tough enough handling normal classes in odd spaces.

For my part, I've given up office space as union chapter leader and won't be demanding it back any time soon. But that's a drop in the bucket.

It's tough to get up and down the stairs sometimes. No one pays attention to up and down staircases, no one ever has, and no one ever will. If the movement is up and you want to go down, you have to fight the crowd. Recently, for the first time ever, I had trouble leaving the building. The movement was from the trailers -- did I mention the trailers? -- to the building and I was going the other way. I decided to try to turn around but was too far in to do so. I was fortunate that some students decided to move out of the way and let me through.

We are slated to get an annex in two or three years, assuming the DOE works on schedule. That's a big assumption. After all, Bloomberg was going to get rid of trailers years ago. We'd be pretty much unable to function without them. Ours are going to go when the annex goes up, and there are 20 learning spaces slated for the annex. Assuming we lose the trailers and the two closets as classrooms, we'll have a net gain of 10 classrooms. Given the explosion of students we face, I’m no longer sure that will fix our issue.

One key point: the DOE doesn't cap neighborhood schools like ours. So if people come in from other neighborhoods, other states, or other countries, they can send their kids to our school. In fact, there are two huge Marriott hotels, not yet open, freshly constructed across the street. Anyone staying there long-term could place their kids with us.

Nine years ago the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), with the principals union, the DOE, and our School Leadership Team, was able to come up with a plan to stem enrollment. Over the last few years the city has ignored that plan, with increasingly negative results. Prospective students used to need something like an electric bill to show residency. Now they just need an affidavit, something that basically anyone could write. I don’t want to turn away district families that want to come to our school, but I’d like to maintain our school as a place those families want to come.

Just before we made our agreement with the city, when we were approaching the enrollment we now have, a reporter asked me what the breaking point was. I told her I didn’t know, but I never wanted to find out. Our agreement with the DOE enabled us to help make the number of students more closely suit the space in our building. A few years ago we had closer to 4,200 students with a goal of 3500.

I’m a lowly teacher, and I saw this coming. It’s time for the important folks at Tweed to stop twiddling their thumbs and start earning their hefty salaries. Maybe their offices would be better used as classrooms. Or maybe they could rent space for us in one of the Marriotts.

In fact, I’m told the city has a plan to reduce our enrollment by 100 students a year, beginning next year. That’s fine, but it’s too little too late. I don’t want to begrudge a single student a single place in a single school, but I also don’t want to find out what our breaking point is. I still don’t know what it is, and I still don’t want to know, but it doesn’t feel far off. If the city doesn’t want to know either, they’ll find us alternate space right now. Waiting is the worst idea and not an option.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader for Francis Lewis High School. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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