First Person

Breaking Stereotypes, From The Bronx To Buffalo State

Marlin Santana is a first-year student at SUNY Buffalo State. Her post is the first in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

Three days. It only took three days for the perception of me at Buffalo State to go from “the innocent girl” to “the girl with the rough upbringing.” All I had to do was answer one simple question, “where are you from?”  As soon as I answered “the Bronx,” gasps and wide eyes filled the room.

I was asked questions like, “Have you ever been shot?” or “Are you or anyone you know in a gang?” I was even told stories about how children in Buffalo are taught that the Bronx is “hell on Earth,” and that those who misbehave will be sent there as punishment. At first I couldn’t help but be furious. I wanted to yell at them that they shouldn’t believe every scene they see in movies about graffiti-covered walls and gun shots being fired from black tinted windows. In fact a lot of the people in the Bronx are just like me: a teenager who, like other teenagers, has grown up in a loving home surrounded by supportive friends.  But instead of getting angry I decided to free them of their ignorance and use their questions to teach them the truth.

What better way to help explain where I grew up than over dinner. I offered to cook a very well-known meal in the Bronx, plantain with salami. To my surprise some of my new friends didn’t even know what a plantain looked like, and I loved watching their sighs of relief when they realized they liked it.

Throughout dinner I couldn’t help noticing how different I am from most of my floor mates and how different the environment that I’m in is from home. I have to deal with so many drastic changes all at once. I no longer have the convenience of using my slang from home without having to explain what it means afterwards. Compared to the 10-minute wait for a bus in the Bronx, the hour wait here is hard to adjust to. The quiet nights here make me miss the sounds of cars honking at all hours of the night back home. As different as Buffalo may be I still love it here. The spicy food, the clear night skies with billions of stars in it, the clean streets, it’s all amazing and new to me.

Both Buffalo and the Bronx have their pros and cons but Buffalo is missing one key component: diversity.

In the Bronx, there are so many different cultures and languages coinciding with one another and I never realized how beautiful it was until I was the only Dominican girl in my group of friends here. This is one of the reasons that college is so unique. Not only am I learning inside the classroom but there are also so many opportunities outside the classroom to meet different people and learn about each other.

College has shown me a valuable lesson; there are people who want to help you succeed. I went to a high school where most of my peers were satisfied with just earning their high school diploma. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of just settling for what’s expected of you. However, I always dreamed of reaching goals bigger than what my neighborhood was supposed to limit me to.

I attended Peace & Diversity High School in the Bronx where I got a lot of support from teachers, staff, and friends.

Entering senior year, I knew that I needed to set up meetings with my guidance counselor who always seemed too busy to help me. After being turned away a few times, I had to constantly remind myself that I was one out of sixty students that she had to help every day. I knew that I had to look for help elsewhere. That’s when my math teacher encouraged me to apply to Bottom Line’s College Access Program. It was the best decision I ever made.

My counselor, Ginette, helped me apply for both college and financial aid, and helped me choose the college that was best for me. For the first time I had an outlet for all my questions and honest concerns about college. Although I was assigned one specific counselor I knew that everyone in the office had my back. They had truly become my family away from home.

Buffalo State College has given me the same outlets. There are writing centers, tutors, RAs and professors who always show a willingness to help me when I need it. There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that if I fall off track there is always some where I can go for help.

My goal throughout my time at Buffalo State College is to incorporate a few of the things from home into my daily routine so that people here won’t have assumptions about people from the Bronx anymore. I want to teach people to ask questions and to not rely on the media or ignorant people as their source of information about where I grew up. And I’d also like to learn about Buffalo culture as much as I can and fully immerse myself in the college experience. Maybe when the question, “where are you from?” arises again I won’t be “the girl from the Bronx who’s probably been shot,” I’ll just be Marlin.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.