Pig Piles and Missing Buses

I remember the chaos of the New York City school bus when I was in elementary and junior high school.  Vandalism was the norm, “pile on” (in which the named person was targeted for a pig pile of five to 10 smothering children) was the game of choice, and drivers—the lone adults—were trained to keep their backs literally turned away from unsafe student behavior so they could focus on the road.

My memory of my own behaviors in this environment, to say nothing of the grown-up problems of lost drivers, disappearing buses and lack of communication to families that have created Chancellor Richard Carranza’s “first crisis,” was one of the reasons we at Harlem Link Charter School dedicated ourselves to having a trusted attendant riding the school bus, each day, each ride, morning and afternoon.

There’s only one problem: bureaucratic barriers make it nearly impossible to get an attendant on the bus.  As a public charter school, we have access to the New York City Office of Pupil Transportation’s (OPT) yellow bus system, but we have found that the system isn’t organized around the needs of students.  I understand that it’s counter-culture to pay adults to ride the school bus.  But even after 20 years as a teacher and principal in public schools, I am surprised every year by the shifting and arcane maze of requirements and regulations that, taken together, paint a very clear picture: it’s easier to allow the kids to be unsupervised, the drivers to be unsupported, and the families to be left out in the dark than to take a chance that a school somewhere will hire someone inappropriate to take on the attendant’s role.

The system isn’t designed to make sure students are safe.  It’s designed to enable bureaucrats to, as they say, “cover your ass.”

We have spent countless hours, exchanged hundreds of emails, provided reams of documentation, all to get that precious certification for each of our bus attendants (who are school employees) vetted through our hiring process and the State Education Department’s background check.   Even after being hired and fingerprinted, OPT bans our staff members from being certified until OPT conducts its own fingerprint background check.  We have provided medical forms from employees’ doctors as part of this process, only to be told that they need to fill out OPT’s new proprietary medical form.  We have sent staff members to hours of mandated training, only to be told, a few months later, that they can’t ride the bus because they need to take a two hour “refresher” course.

We have persisted, and used the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s idea of creative maladjustment to skirt the rules whenever we can (and when grateful drivers are willing to risk their own sanction, in the name of student safety, by looking the other way and allowing “unapproved” attendants to ride), knowing we are making the right choice for student needs.

Sometimes we have been able to get through the maze—after weeks of responding to bureaucratic requests—and get actual certifications.  Because of our persistence, in the last week alone, our bus attendants have:

  • Worked with our teachers to rearrange student seating strategically to help students who have behavior modification plans;
  • Given parents a heads up that a bus was running late when it broke down and been an empathetic face for frustrated parents waiting in the rain when the replacement finally arrived;
  • Supported a driver with a severely overcrowded route (a bus that we have for some reason been assigned to share with another school, serving over 60 students)

The chancellor has reportedly responded to the thousands of parent complaints about buses—some of those from our parents—by assigning Elizabeth Rose, a former deputy chancellor, to focus solely on transportation issues.  This is potentially a wise move, because my experience with her tells me she is fair, open-minded and focused on parent feedback.

But the new transportation czar will need to do more than just have an open mind and a strategic view of things.  I’m sure that if Ms. Rose heard about the pig piles and ripped Pleather seats of my youthful bus rides, she would take action.  I’m not sure what she can do, however, about the “cover your ass” attitude that seems so pervasive.  She will need to completely reorient a system that has been serving the needs of adults for decades and is simply not organized to meet the needs of students and families.

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My Sexual Harassment Failure as a Leader

The #metoo phenomenon has exposed personal failures across the political, entertainment and business world.  I’d like to share my related failure as a school leader – but bear with me while I do a little bragging first.

In thirteen years running a school, I have made it a rule never to comment on someone’s appearance.  I have steered clear of any comments that might be taken as suggestive and of off-color humor in the workplace.

Why?  As actress and activist Alyssa Milano pointed out on Twitter, there is a straight line between harassment and the more generally condemned violations like rape.  My parents taught me at a young age that rape was wrong and gravely serious before I knew anything about sex. Later, encounters both professional and personal with trusting, open-hearted women (partly as a consequence of working elementary education where women generally hold the expertise) taught me about that straight line.

As a supervisor, I don’t know what anyone thinks when I speak, but I know how they might think.

“You look great today.” (“Why isn’t he commenting on my teaching?  Am I just a pretty face to him?”)

“You’ve lost weight!” (“Did he think something was wrong with me? Does he still think that?”)

“That sweater looks great on you.” (“Please don’t be undressing me with his eyes.”)

“I love your makeup.” (“Does he want something from me?  What am I supposed to say?”)

“That skirt really brings out your eyes.” (“Gross.”)

I believe every person in a position of authority should think this way.

An added factor in my profession is the need to model for young people how to use language to empower, rather than paint into a gender-role corner, those of all gender identities.  In order to defy a culture that wants to objectify them, young girls in particular deserve to grow up judging themselves on the content of their character and not on their subjective appearance.  Armed with that orientation, they can work on overcoming the actions of people who stand in the way of their goals or objectify them.

OK, let’s talk about my failure.  Of course, there are many from which to choose, but on this topic, for someone wielding power setting an example is not enough.  My no-comment approach has been, for the most part, thoughtless.  To be a more effective leader, I have to take purposeful action that helps the community meet common goals, but also bring others along.  I haven’t prompted our school to update our policy on sexual harassment in many years, despite changes in state law and I can’t remember the last time we held a workshop on the subject for our employees and regularly contracted service providers.

I’m going to fix those problems, and the courage of the people joining in the #metoo movement is a direct challenge to do so. I don’t feel ashamed admitting to you that I haven’t taken these simple steps that every employer should take, because I know that leadership also involves learning, and I am confident that with my steadfast focus on my work, I won’t repeat my past mistakes.

Everyone deserves to have that confidence, but it’s only going to happen if we both show and tell it to each other and to the next generation.

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How to Build Community, One Cut at a Time

All my life I’ve been telling people that my father helped shape my work ethic with his example.  Today, on the day of his retirement, aside from recalling the thousands of corny jokes he has told, I realize that he also showed me how to create a loving community.

My father, Antimo Evangelista, known to his customers as Andy, began working in 1968 alongside his brothers Sigfrido (aka Siggy) and Bruno at the barbershop owned by Siggy and, at the time, another uncle named Nunzio.  My father and Bruno bought the shop (and kept the name Sigfrido’s) when Siggy retired 30 years later. For the past 10 years, my father owned the shop by himself, with Bruno retiring to fight a brave and inspiring health battle.

In a small family-owned business, there is no such thing as a middle manager, so if the shop was open (as it was every day except Sundays and a few major holidays), my father was there. For the past 10 years he has worked six-day weeks with no sick days or vacations, save for the few occasions when a rare day or two when one of his brothers would fill in for him.

That consistency — along with the 5 a.m. wake up, hour-long commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, and the 11-hour day in the shop — are what taught me my work ethic. There is dignity and validation in putting in that kind of effort day, in and day out.

Steven and Antimo Evangelista

The author and the owner

But there was an even more important quality that my father and my uncles brought to Sigfrido’s. As he has made his last cuts this week, we witnessed the reverence and care he had for his customers over five decades being returned to him by them. He treated each of them as equals — no matter their station in life — and they collectively let him know how much they will miss him and have appreciated his loving touch.

My father’s shop welcomed people from all walks of life. Manhattan’s wondrous diversity spilled into the shop every day. People on the fringes of society found acceptance in those chairs, some of them hanging around and becoming fixtures in the shop, because they felt the same respect as the police commissioner, the television stars and high-powered bankers who were also members of the clientele.

The old fashioned cash register and storefront window

The prices haven't moved in years.

As my dad wraps up his career, he’s cutting the hair of his first customers’ grandchildren. He has hardly raised the prices the last 20 years — he wanted to respect the needs of his customers — and along with that consideration and the old fashioned hot towel straight- edge shave, it’s no wonder those customers have sent postcards to the shop from seemingly every corner of the world.

Every day at our school we start the day with a morning meeting in each classroom. The purpose of the meeting is to convey a sense of belonging, importance and fun to each child. It is the foundation of our school’s commitment to a positive community. It’s something Andy, along with his brothers, did for his customers ever day for the past 48 years without a break.

Now did you hear the one about the guy who walked into the elevator with a supermodel?

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Governance: The Real Innovation

In education reform, it’s hard for an experienced educator, let alone an average citizen, to know what to make of the seemingly endless and shifting debates about The Next Big Thing.  Teacher evaluation.  New standards.  New tests.  Newer standards, and newer tests.  Magic technology tools. Videotaping teachers.  Not videotaping teachers.

Have you noticed that none of the Old Big Things have both stuck around and had a real, measurable impact on our problems?  Have you noticed that we are constantly moving on to another Next Big Thing?  I’ve noticed, and it’s why I ignore the Next Big Thing in favor of some Old Fashioned Things.

I want to tell you about one Old Fashioned Thing, where the charter law truly has provided innovation that will last.

That Old Fashioned Thing is governance.

Governance matters because all the Big Things and new initiatives in the world won’t make a difference if there isn’t clear agreement on the principles and vision that should guide schools.   In The System where these fancy innovations live, we are nowhere near agreement on those principles and that vision.

Absent such a vision, schools—like any organization—are in danger of being simply employment agencies (and in this case, child warehouses) drifting from initiative to initiative.

I’ve been in The System and I know that just keeping up with the mountains of often conflicting mandates is enough to keep one occupied full-time, distracted from the real work of serving children and families by understanding them and pushing them to high levels of engagement and achievement.

So the real, lasting charter innovation is not a set of instructional tricks or better use of technology.  It’s not eliminating the union contract or doing test prep better than anyone else.  It’s the fact that charters can replace those endless, confusing mandates with the focused attention of a diverse group of professionals who have a singular focus on one community of students: an independent, effective and attentive board of trustees.

You might say, “Well, The System has one of those.”  The current iteration for New York City district schools, the Panel for Educational Policy, indeed features intelligent, accomplished leaders who have earned the public trust.  But those 13 appointees make fundamental policy and resource decisions for over 1,500 schools educating over 1,000,000 students.  Their time is filled with rubber stamping decisions they don’t have time to review, picking a battle here or there in which to engage, and sorting through the divergent protesting voices they constantly encounter and probably rarely understand.

Our board makes those exact same decisions for one school with 300 students.  The difference in vision, consistency and focus cannot be overstated.

Our board has made four critical resource decisions in the past few years addressing employee benefits, class size, our co-teaching model and our top five-year priority, after school.  Each decision followed months or even years of research, planning, consensus building and finally decisiveness, in which all parties felt that they were heard and in the hands of a capable and fair authority.

Innovations will come and inevitably, they will go.  Maybe some gadget or textbook will be so great that it will move the ball forward by a few yards toward the goal.  But unless the goal posts stay in one place, it won’t matter in the long run.

Just wait and watch.  The Big Charter Innovation of school governance will outlast all of them.

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Word Gap, Play Gap

A recent report, Little to Gain and Much to Lose, calls for a moratorium on kindergarten Common Core reading standards. The report argues that the “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten.” Therefore, expectations for reading in kindergarten should not be forced on children, who “learn through playful, hands-on experiences with materials, the natural world, and engaging, caring adults.”

The report raises a pressing issue that we face every day at Harlem Link. We are struggling to balance the developmental needs of children to play and explore with the academic demands that are heaped on us not only by Common Core but also by the imperative to improve college and life outcomes that were the impetus of Common Core’s development. Every year we at Harlem Link want children spend more time with blocks, developing spatial awareness, nimble brain functioning and problem solving skills. At the same time, we feel pressure to put the blocks away and take the pencils out. While talkative experts are ready to pounce on Little to Gain to attack Common Core, the esteemed authors of the report and other critics point out a dilemma we will never resolve as long as we ignore the root of the problem.

Unstated in the report is the socioeconomic divide of “developmental readiness.” Here’s the sad and scary truth: children from higher economic classes and whose parents have a higher level of education enter kindergarten with far more literacy and language experiences than children from lower economic classes. In simpler terms, wealthier parents tend to read and talk to their kids a lot and do those things with purpose and verve. Lower income parents, much less so.

The authors throw “developmental readiness” around as if it were an innate, biologically determined quality that each child brings to school. Nonsense. Child development is highly dependent on environmental factors, and home experiences trump just about everything else when it comes to being “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. The now-famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by age three children from lower-income families typically hear 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the Little to Gain report says to me, “Some kids just aren’t going to go to college. They enter kindergarten not ready to read, so why force them?”

On the other hand, study after study shows, “If you aren’t ready to read in kindergarten, you better catch up fast because by the time you should be going to college, the odds are you’ll be looking for a minimum-wage job instead because you won’t be qualified for higher education.”

So implicit in the report, for me, are two real questions, neither of which is answered by the report:

  1. What do we educators and policymakers do about the massive word gap that lower income children face even before they enter kindergarten?
  2. What do we do for the children, regardless of the income of their families, who enter kindergarten “unready” for reading?

As I said above, we’ll never have a satisfactory answer for Question #2. I know; I’ve been trying to find the balance for the last 10 years. It’s a wild ride on this particular pendulum.

But Question #1 does have an answer, and done well, it will attack the root of the problem and break the cycle of poverty.

The answer is about parent education and parent resources. Our school has many families who prove that a low-income doesn’t have to mean a literacy-poor home (although some parents need extra support and creativity; how can you read to your child every night when you are a single parent working the night shift?).

There are multiple organizations working to educate parents on how to support literacy at home, beginning at birth. As part of our new Start to Finish program, we partner with Reach Out and Read, through which pediatricians provide books and training to new parents. The Parent-Child Home Program sends literacy specialists on structured visits to low-income homes to teach literacy-supporting parent-child interactions.

It’s time that elementary schools saw contributing to the solution for Question #1 is a central part of all of our efforts. We must work together to ensure that no community is labeled “developmentally unready.” Every school should be engaged in supporting community members to meet the vision of the Parent-Child Home Program: “Every child enters school ready to succeed because every parent has the knowledge and resources to build school readiness where it starts: the home.”

When that vision is met, there could be a proper celebration in every kindergarten, and a developmentally appropriate one: a block party!

This post also appeared on Chalkbeat NY.

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