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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.
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.
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.[caption id="attachment_530" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The author and the owner"][/caption]
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.[caption id="attachment_532" align="alignleft" width="239" caption="The prices haven't moved in years."][/caption]
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?
March 28, 2014
Dear parents of third, fourth and fifth graders,
As you know, the English Language Arts test is next week—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
You have probably heard about all the controversy of parents “opting out” of the test and all of the fear and wrangling that’s going on. If you haven’t, ask around and get up to speed on the current debate in education, because we are in historic times and you can empower yourself and our community with information.
To summarize, many families are taking the extraordinary step of refusing to have their child take the state test because they are worried that there is too much emphasis on the “high stakes” test.
I very much agree with why those families that are protesting—but I think that opting out is the wrong way to approach it. Tests, good and bad, are a part of life.
At our school, we make our own decisions about teacher evaluation and student promotion. Test scores are only a part of those decisions. Our relationships with students and all of the in-class data we collect weigh much more heavily. We put the tests in their proper perspective, and they only serve to confirm or enhance what we already know about how we are doing.
I know that our scholars are ready for the test. We won’t be perfect, but we are going to do our best and use the test to show how much we have learned.
I want you to know that we have a number of incentives for doing well on the state test. If students hit their target test scores, they get to attend the Laser Tag trip coming in the fall. But even better, if they try their hardest and do their best (they will judge that with their teachers’ help), no matter their score, they will have a special dress-down day and outdoor ice cream party on a sunny day later in April. We are more interested in effort and improvement than we are in going crazy over high stakes scores.
Please support your child to do his or her best—get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast and be ready to focus and attack that test like a tiger!
The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005. A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing. The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders. After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:
“We will work with any family that will work with us.”
On the surface it sounds great, even noble. Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity? A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.” But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!
A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting. Who exactly are we serving? What is the real cost of serving everyone? And who, exactly, wants to work with us?
An alternative—and, I would say, more noble–statement would be: “We will work with any family.”
The question of whether or not to include the dependent clause boils down to this: Are so-called high-performing schools of choice on one level just great sorting factories? Are the “families that will work with us” just another way of identifying the same families that researchers like economist James Heckman would find already imbue in their kids the “soft skills” required to persist and be successful in school, college and life?
If so, what happens to those other kids? The ones whose parents are intimidated by the prospect of charter school rigor, or by the demands of keeping up with the schedule and the requirements of having a child in a charter school, or who won’t agree or feel they can’t agree that it’s important to get their kids to school on time and in uniform every day?
Creaming and Counseling Out
According to defenders of the status quo, the charter answer to this predicament is to ignore the problem so it will go away for someone else to solve. Charters allegedly use intimidating, even hostile techniques such as harassment both to prevent parents who are less engaged and equipped to support their child’s education from signing up (so-called “creaming” or “skimming” the best students and families) and, if they do sign up, to push out those less engaged parents once they show their stripes (“counseling out”). This issue has long been Criticism Number 1 of charter schools, and charter folks like me have spent years denying that our own schools engage in such practices, even as we know, and admit, that it happens elsewhere to varying degrees. (As an aside, I know that this practice occurs at district schools as well, increasingly as school choice has proliferated; I know because I’m curious and parents with firsthand knowledge and an atypically blunt principal have told me so.)
I also argue that de facto counseling out occurs as a result of high expectations. If I demand that a child come to school on time every day—and then have our school social workers and parent coordinator work with that student’s family if the child is repeatedly tardy or absent —some families will choose the path of least resistance and transfer their children to a school down the street that won’t bother dealing with attendance concerns. In these cases (which are rare) I don’t see an alternative for preventing that family from leaving our school other than lowering our standards—and that’s not an option.
To the extent that there is counseling out, are charters making conscious choices to push out or exclude families that require greater resources or refuse to get on board? Or do some parents self-select out simply as a result of the rigor or perceived rigor of school policies? How aware are charter operators of the enrollment and attrition implications of their policies?
I believe that by failing to answer these questions explicitly, comprehensively and publicly, charter schools are wasting the opportunity to contribute to long-lasting, meaningful reform. As a charter school founder and mentor of mine told me recently, “In 25 years no one will care about this school’s or that school’s test scores. A rigorous analysis will be longitudinal, and start with all the students in a school’s original cohort. If you’re only reporting on the ones who stay, you’re not doing rigorous research. And no one should care.”
There are some charter schools confronting these questions, but I’m not entirely satisfied with their answers. KIPP, among the largest and most respected charter schools, publishes its own annual report card that asks questions such as: “Are we serving the children who need us?” and “Are our students staying with us?” The report contains statistical answers on how many students stay in the program and the demographic composition of students—more transparency than you will typically find in a public school district—but no analysis of how a “no excuses” policy impacts those statistics.
Is Harlem Link Intentional?
At our school, we have always believed that having high expectations can lead to an inclusive and still high-performing school, if all families are required to meet the same standards but support is provided to ensure that those who need help get it. We have continually raised expectations—for everyone about everything—and have seen that the strain of meeting these expectations has exposed some disagreement over the standards by some families.
Examples of our policies include:
- If a child comes to school out of uniform, we require that to change and are unyielding about it, but if acquiring a uniform is a demonstrable financial burden, we will provide a uniform.
- We have hired multiple support personnel to hear the concerns of and provide support to parents—including two full-time social workers and one parent coordinator for our small student body of 300 students. (There was one counselor and no parent coordinator at my first public school, which had an enrollment of 1,700.)
- If a child comes to school late multiple times, several different members of our staff will contact the child’s parent or parents to offer support and remind them of the importance of being on time. If we ask for a meeting and a parent misses the meeting, we will ask to reschedule.
- When seats open up in the upper grades, we continue to enroll new students to fill those seats. We plan our budget accordingly, knowing the burden it places on all of us at the school to acclimate new families and students to our expectations and support new students who, on average, enter far behind the typical academic performance of our current student body.
- We have three full-time Academic Intervention Services teachers to help with remediation for students who are behind academically. (That’s one for every 100 students, compared to one for every 350 or so at my first school and probably most schools nationally.)
- We have continued to support the independence of our parent association, which has since our opening year elected its own leadership, even though in some years in the past the parent willing to make the most noise and get elected president was a disgruntled one who used the office to grind an ax rather than make productive change for children.
Behind each of these policies is a conscious decision that has a discernible impact on the composition of our student body, on whether the children of parents who are uninformed about, feel powerless to control or simply disagree with our society’s norms about the basics of school readiness continue to attend our school.
Tonight, as we begin the process of building our next five-year strategic plan (2014-2019), we will debate whether we should continue these policies and others like them and we will take a stab at uncovering their true costs.
My presumption entering the debate is that if we are to take the stance that we are here to serve “all families” (without the dependent clause) we need more resources than we have now. Two social workers and one parent coordinator aren’t enough—simply because instruction needs my full-time attention and that of our other instructional leaders.
Right now, we’re half an instructional team. Half our attention seems to be occupied with issues like those described above. (I’ll bet the ratio is even higher for many district school principals.)
What if we had not only two but a full team of social workers, who would work not in the school but in needy families’ homes? What if we supplied everyone with a uniform? What if we had intervention teachers who only worked with individual students who were new to the school in the upper grades and need remediation?
Well, you might say, why don’t you do all those things already? Why don’t you spend your money more wisely to meet your mission? You won’t typically find me saying, “Schools need more resources.” That’s because I know that the money that is currently allocated to district schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically not well-spent to begin with.
In addition to having a strong curriculum, faculty and school ethos, I hope I have demonstrated that our school has already devoted significant time and money to providing support to families that need it and ensuring we attract and retain students of all varieties. What I’m saying is, if we are to serve “any family” and not just “any family that will work with us,” we need a parallel school, one for the soft skills that in high achieving communities are taken for granted.
You don’t have to look far down the street from our school—Geoff Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are basically trying to do these very same things (except, they were a social service agency that started a school rather than the other way around). Our questions are different: What can one school do? What can each school do? What does each school need to do? And tonight at our board meeting, what ought we do?
This post also appears at Chalkbeat.