First Person

An ex-Fahari teacher on the school’s likely closure

When I heard the news that Fahari Academy Charter School was not recommended for renewal by its authorizer, the Department of Education, I was not surprised. In fact, I was quietly pleased. This may come as a surprise for many, considering I was interviewed a year ago by GothamSchools to highlight positive changes at Fahari.

Coming out of graduate school and into my first teaching job at Fahari, I believed that school closure was only detrimental to schools and communities. My experience at Fahari pushed me to grapple firsthand with the challenge of actually trying to improve a struggling school.

After submitting my resignation letter this past June, I spent the summer reflecting on my experience there and trying to make sense of what went wrong.

Fahari was already struggling when I started working there in January 2012. For the next two years, first as a teaching assistant and then as an English language arts teacher, I witnessed repeated attempts to improve the school, including unionizing the teachers, pressuring the school’s founder to resign, and revamping the curriculum.

In the end, I’m very skeptical about what the outcome of the school’s charter being renewed would be. While I am deeply suspicious of efforts to close schools in New York City given the way closures negatively impact surrounding communities, it seems unfair and unjust to allow the level of mismanagement I witnessed at Fahari to remain unchecked.

What union?

Before my arrival and after some of the most unstable months in the school’s history, a group of teachers unionized, forming a dissenting group to advocate for teachers’ rights.

The hope was that unionization would address multiple levels of instability at our school. But as a teacher, I didn’t feel represented by the union.

At the end of my first semester at the school, key members of the union did not have their contracts renewed. This alone should have indicated to the rest of us how weakened the union had already become.

It felt as if our chapter simply became an extension of the administration. At several meetings, our chapter leader told us that we needed to hold ourselves accountable and “do our jobs,” referring in particular to our roles outside of teaching. These included responsibilities such as monitoring hallways, breakfast, and lunch, as well as inputting data and creating whole grade-level and school-wide disciplinary systems. We were told that leadership would listen to us only after we did these things. The irony was these were the very responsibilities many of us were frustrated about and wanted to change.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

The schools founder, executive director, and principal, Catina Venning, was identified as a primary cause for the school’s struggles. Under great pressure, she eventually stepped down from all of her roles in June 2012.

The hope was that the school’s outlook would then improve. Staff and consultants worked to reset, reorganize, and rebrand the school. Still, these efforts did not resolve a lack of consistent leadership, and teachers felt left out of decisions about important issues such as the treatment of students with special needs and curriculum design.

I also noticed a persistent culture of low expectations that, at times, manifested itself in ugly ways. I recall one teacher and member of leadership telling students they behaved like criminals and they would end up in prison someday. I heard that same teacher yell a misogynistic epithet at a student.

Another administrator required students to clean bathrooms as a consequence for poor behavior. During a professional development workshop, another school leader explained the school’s struggles to staff through what seemed like a defeatist manifesto: that in a neighborhood like Flatbush where kids’ skill levels were so low, there was only so much work that could be accomplished.

Unmet special needs

One of the Department of Education’s gravest concerns about the school was the high number of students who left the school. Making sure students stayed enrolled in the school last year was one of Fahari’s highest priorities.

Perhaps as a result, special education was hugely compromised at our school, and I was surprised not to see it highlighted in the Department of Education’s reviews of the school. As a teacher with special needs students, I was involved in annual phone calls with parents, administrators, and the district representative updating and adjusting their Individualized Educational Plans.

On one occasion, two other teachers and I were not in favor of a decision to keep a student at our school. We believed this student was not receiving proper in-class support and services as required by his IEP. We didn’t think our school could provide the services he needed, so we believed it was in his best interest to consider other schools.

Our suggestions were ignored and his IEP was later changed to include services the school could provide. Most of the decisions made about special education appeared to be made to make sure the school was complying with the letter of the law — and our enrollment numbers didn’t drop — rather than making sure students were actually getting the services that would help them succeed.

When a colleague and I brought this concern to the union it was dismissed, and we heard the now-familiar “do your job” maxim.

Curriculum hurdles

In preparation for taking on my first year as an English language arts teacher, I had the opportunity to help develop the ELA curriculum.

Teachers rarely had this sort of opportunity under Vennings’s leadership, and I initially saw this as a great opportunity and a chance to learn about effective methods of teaching literacy. Instead, I learned much more about gaps in the way we understand literacy for urban students.

The work my colleagues and I did during the summer of 2012 to prepare the curriculum for the school year never prepared me for the challenges we would face. We spent the year implementing reading and writing workshops, a model that allows students more time to read and write independently, and gives teachers time to work with small groups of students on the skills they struggle with most.

We struggled to implement this model because our students required far more support than I had anticipated. Many students in the fifth and sixth grades came in reading nearly two to three grade levels below, and by the end of the year most of my students only moved up one grade level if any at all.

We knew our curriculum needed more work, and during the spring of 2013 we told school leaders that we wanted to chance to revise the curriculum over the summer, building off our experience during the 2012-13 school year. However, when the new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, was hired in May 2013, she decided to move away from the workshop model and instead introduce an entirely new curriculum.

This approach to curriculum reflects a trend I noticed throughout my time at Fahari: constant overhauls that were made without input from teachers, and in ways that didn’t actually address the root causes of the problems we were dealing with.

I remain suspicious of the widespread school closures championed by the Bloomberg administration, but my experience working at Fahari last year has left me with serious doubts about whether the school is capable of improving enough to benefit the students and community it serves.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.