Monthly Archives: March 2011

Alumni Night

It seems like eons ago, but last summer I wrote about a former student who I had finally tracked down after a nearly ten year search – in prison.  I learned from Tom that in the ten years since he was in my class, he bounced from school to school and agency to agency.  Ultimately, no one in the system took responsibility for guiding him, never mind assuring his academic success.

The juxtaposition of that experience and Harlem Link having our first graduating class in 2010 made me all the more resolute to develop one aspect of our mission that, until having that first graduation, we have been unable to pursue: following our alumni. It strikes me as sad that in independent schools, the tracking and supporting of alumni is routine, but in most public schools, once students graduate it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

Not to say that students who graduate from public schools aren’t welcome at their alma mater (although my guess is they wouldn’t think to use that term to describe their former school or even the term “alumni” to describe themselves).  When I became a teacher, I arranged a visit to my old fifth grade teacher at P.S. 23 in Staten Island, and of course he remembered me and welcomed me with open arms.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing graduates come back through the doors of schools where I have worked or with which I have shared space in Harlem to visit.  The problem isn’t (generally) that public schools aren’t welcoming to alumni, it’s that they are not systematic about keeping in touch with alumni.  The kids who are doing well will always find a way to come back if they want to or need something, and they will be embraced; it’s the kids who are finding themselves tracked for prison who really need that support and guidance from people and organizations that knew them when they were smaller and not yet labeled by society.

But with time and without nurturing, the associations fade.  Advantaged kids attending independent schools or public schools with serious fundraising aims (like my high school) have the benefit of an institutional connection that builds on the personal relationships and that provides support in a variety of ways throughout their lives, not only while Mr. Dugan is still teaching fifth grade or Mr. Evangelista is still working in the Hans Christian Andersen Complex. 

All this is to say how excited I am about next Thursday’s Alumni Night at Harlem Link.  We’re bringing back three of our graduates to sit on a panel and share insights into what life is like on the other side of fifth grade graduation.  We are inviting our entire school community, but focusing in on the fourth and fifth graders who are going through their various stages of middle school application and research right now.   The sixth grade panelists are excited to serve.  They should be; it is an honor to be chosen to represent the world beyond elementary school. 

A program for alumni would probably not have helped Tom avoid prison.  The fact is that he was not officially an alumnus of the school where I taught him; he was transferred out in the fourth grade to a “special school downtown” (these vague words being the last I’d heard of him for those nearly ten years).  But if we are designing systems to support kids through all of the stages of their childhood and young adulthood, a program for alumni is the lowest hanging fruit.  If schools aren’t doing this work for the kids who make it all the way through their complete program, you can be certain there’s nothing systematic in place to help the kids like Tom, who have no one to speak for them.

So I’ll see you at Alumni Night on April 7, at 6 pm, and be patient: I’ll also see you at our first alumni reunion, already scheduled for October 2012.  We’re not stopping our work when our kids leave our doors!

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Fighting the FAE

Keisha didn’t simply have a hard time adjusting. She was in pain. She spent most of each lunch period screaming at the top of her lungs. Unclear what she wanted, she would scream for an adult to hold her hand and then scream for the adult to stop touching her. She spent most of her classroom time wandering around the room, appearing to be in anguish, with no teacher intervention working to calm her down. On the school bus on the way home, Keisha was a veritable tornado of disruption. We feared for her safety.

I’m really glad that David Brooks mentioned the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) in his recent column about Samuel Huntington and the idea of clash of civilizations. This phenomenon, a basic element of Psychology 101 courses, deserves more widespread attending in education circles.

Simply put, the FAE highlights the human tendency to excuse our own mistakes and errors as influenced by circumstances beyond our control, while we assign permanent characteristics to others when we observe the same mistakes and errors, without considering the same influencing circumstances. We will blame the uneven sidewalk for our own trip and fall, but assign the attribute of clumsiness to the stranger across the street who trips and falls on the same crack.

I find the FAE to be so important in education because the mindset of teachers, parents and principals impacts our day to day decision making, treatment and expectations about children so greatly. A no-excuses, high expectations environment demands that we stay vigilant against falling victim to the FAE, and that we see the positive possibility and potential for good choices behind student behaviors when they strike us as awry. It means we need to understand why students behave the way they do, and to get inside their perspectives, rather than assigning a label or a judgment that closes to the door to change.

There are many student behaviors that stand out to me when I think about the FAE – behaviors to which a natural human reaction is to say, “What a ______ child” or “Clearly, that child cannot do this or that.” But one, a fourth grader at our school who I’ll call Keisha, is particularly dramatic. Keisha enrolled in our school in kindergarten in our first year of operation, when our expectations for student behavior were far less clear than they are today, and the structures and systems we had in place were commensurately so.

While we were still safer and more orderly than the school down the street, our imperfect adult behaviors formed the circumstances that led to many problematic student behaviors. In that start-up environment, with adults communicating different messages and unacceptable student behaviors leading to inconsistent adult responses, many of our five and six year olds naturally had a hard time adjusting to school.

Keisha didn’t simply have a hard time adjusting. She was in pain. She spent most of each lunch period screaming at the top of her lungs. Unclear what she wanted, she would scream for an adult to hold her hand and then scream for the adult to stop touching her. She spent most of her classroom time wandering around the room, appearing to be in anguish, with no teacher intervention working to calm her down. On the school bus on the way home, Keisha was a veritable tornado of disruption. We feared for her safety.

Aware of the FAE (I was a psychology major in college for a reason), I knew that I shouldn’t leap to conclusions about Keisha or her home life. Family members responded to our entreaties to get involved in school, shared some possible reasons for her behavior and committed to working with us over the years. This belief in each child, even a child with such obvious and outrageous struggles as Keisha, led our school to invest the time and resources needed to support her. Over the years, our Academic Intervention Services teachers and one of our school social workers collaborated with the family and classroom teachers to try a variety of strategies to support Keisha’s needs and her growth.

Importantly, the school settled down that first year and systems and routines became clear. As the years have gone by, Keisha has struggled less and less, making at times dramatic improvements in her ability to adjust to school life. Having missed so much class time, she had to repeat the first grade and still went to second grade struggling academically. But she has caught up. Now in fourth grade, Keisha is having a terrific year. She has not exhibited a single behavioral problem and on the 2010 state reading test – a test that 48% of New York State students failed in grades 3-8 – Keisha scored at Level 3, a passing score. This morning she excitedly showed me a chapter book she is reading about a high school for Greek gods and goddesses (yes, a Rick Riordan ripoff, but a book that she chose herself and a gateway to interesting and high quality literature).

Working with Keisha now it’s hard to imagine, let alone remember, the struggling five year old we met in 2005.  It was the family’s belief in their daughter and our teachers’ belief and commitment to Keisha’s development – our shared resistance to the FAE – that facilitated this success story.

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Building Relationships Part II: Moving Towards Community Well-Being

On February 7, 2011, parents, educators and students from all over New York State flocked to Albany, NY for the annual Charter School Advocacy Day.  An auditorium in the statehouse held over 1,000 supporters of charter schools, screaming, chanting and holding signs that read: “Charter schools are public schools!” 

As Special Projects Manager of Harlem Link Charter School, I attended and served as the bus captain for the supporters of our school and a neighboring secondary charter school.  During lunch, I got up to take a walk around the room – despite a constantly growing number of charter schools, the charter school network is still quite small, and more often than not I run into at least someone that I know. 

As I circulated with a colleague, I was surprised to hear a call of “Mr. Green!”  I would have expected to hear “Noah,” as I thought I would run into friends that I knew.  I turned around and saw two of my former fourth-grade students, Shawna and Abby, who were attending the event as sixth graders with their new charter middle school.  I was so excited to see them, and to see that they were being given the opportunity to come to the statehouse and see the concept of “active citizenship” in an up close and personal way.

As I talked to the girls, their teacher came up and asked me if I had taught them before – which I said I had.  The teacher then reported not only on Shawna and Abby, but was able to rattle off the names of other sixth graders who had also come from our school: Sean, Steve, and others.  She spoke about all our former students in an incredibly caring way, discussing their struggles and successes, strengths and weaknesses. 

As a former teacher, it was not the discussion of students that I found striking – I believe that strong, dedicated teachers ought to be able to speak about their students in such thoughtful ways.  What struck me was how quickly the teacher was able to rattle off the names of all the students who had attended our school before moving into her school.  Thinking about Steve’s last blog, it is a statement about the health of a community when students attending a new school, are still associated as a community based on the previous school.  Being a member of a school community should not stop when one attends a new school; it should be a community that exists well beyond the walls and years of the school.

In my capacity to support our current 5th graders in finding middle school placements this year, I have encountered stories of student success and recognition all over.  The first time I escorted a fifth grader to an interview at a high-performing Upper West Side public school, I told the principal my school and named the two students who attend her school from ours.  She responded, without thinking, by saying “I LOVE Larry!!  And Erica is doing fantastic as well!”  As the principal of a 6-8 school, she knew both our students by name and was able to instantly speak to their success in their new setting.  Again, they were spoken about in the same breath.  This has been true of every school leader or teacher that I have spoken to where Harlem Link graduates attend.

When students develop strong relationships with each other and with adults in a school, they take important skills and capacities with them when they take the next steps in their education.  It cannot be an accident that adults in different schools, charter and public, are able to discuss our students by name and continue to associate them with each other.  Building relationships in our school empowered students to build relationships in their next school placements. 

These types of relationships are difficult without a very clear final cause.   Harlem Link’s final cause is to “graduate articulate scholars and active citizens.”  In a world where numerical data and test scores are the coin of the realm, I find myself wondering what better proof there is of meeting our mission than seeing and hearing about the scholarship and citizenship of our graduates in their new settings. 

The mission of Harlem Link is about something more than just great test scores, though we aim for that as well.  It is about realizing who students are and empowering them to recognize and utilize their own innate strengths to craft and create lives they desire for themselves and their families.  In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner wrote about 21st century students that:

They [21st century students] want to neither passively consume information at school nor just go through the motions at work – which is why many employers worry about their apparent lack of work ethic.  They long to interact – with the net, with ideas and problems that need solving, with friends and colleagues – and even with older adults – but in new ways.  Wherever they are, they long to learn and to create in a collaborative, collegial environment.

Harlem Link’s first class of graduates are proving this description to be true – and the final cause of our school is not to fight these tendencies, but to highlight them and bring them out in our students through collaborative, innovative and differentiated models of teaching and learning.  From the evidence, we seem to be on our way.

This post appears in another form at Dropout Nation.

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