Master Class

After fanfare, inside the Bronx classroom of New York’s Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Alhassan Susso, New York's Teacher of the Year, leads a class discussion in his Bronx classroom.

Twelfth graders at the International Community High School in the South Bronx were pumped when they watched their social studies teacher, Alhassan Susso, receive the state’s Teacher of the Year award in September, the first time a New York City educator has received the honor in two decades.

When Susso’s name was announced, 18-year-old Eric Parache and his classmates watching a livestream of the Albany award ceremony erupted in applause. “I feel so lucky to have him as a teacher,” Parache said.

Susso returned to the school two days later, where he was mobbed by students and colleagues who were eager to offer their congratulations. “It was crazy,” Susso recalled. But the fanfare soon passed, and Susso was back to the obscurity of the everyday job he loves.

Curious about how a Teacher of the Year practices his craft, Chalkbeat visited Susso’s class on a recent morning, where he was introducing a new unit on civil rights to a social studies class of roughly two dozen 12th graders, including a few late stragglers. He was posing some big questions on race — what it is and isn’t and who gets to decide.

The topic was one, in the nation’s most segregated school system, that both he and his students had clearly given some thought. When Susso accepted his award, he noted that he taught in the poorest congressional district in the country.

Many of Susso’s students are immigrants, hailing from West Africa, the Dominican Republic, or Yemen among other countries. Having moved to the U.S. from Gambia when he was 16, the teacher has a deep affinity for the hardships and challenges many of them face. Susso’s own immigrant experience has informed his approach in the classroom.

Before leaving Gambia, Susso completed the equivalent of eighth grade and was a top student, despite suffering from a rare eye disease— a condition he hid from everyone, including his teachers and parents, and left him nearly blind.

“I shielded myself from anyone knowing,” he said, “because disability is very stigmatizing in Gambia.”

At one point, when he was 11, he traveled to a hospital, but with few medical resources, the doctors there couldn’t help. To compensate, Susso stayed up late at night to memorize textbooks, whose words he could just make out, so he could follow the next day’s lessons on his school’s blackboard, which he never could see.

Once in the U.S., he settled in Poughkeepsie, moving in with a brother’s family and enrolling in the local high school. Because of his age, he was placed in the 11th grade.

In retrospect, skipping two grades, he said, “was the best thing that could have happened to me.” Because he was so miserable, he doubts he would have graduated if he’d had to make it through all four years.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability,” something he said was also true about his students, many of whom arrive at the school reading far below grade level. “There is not an achievement gap,” he insisted. “There is an opportunity gap.”

Like some of his students, Susso often arrived in class feeling angry, hungry, or exhausted and forever out of place. “I was the only African student,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends.” Sharing a home with his brother’s family proved untenable, and within eight months, Susso was living on his own and having to support himself with after-school jobs in a country he still scarcely knew or understood.

“Based on what I went through,” he said, he tries to provide many “different opportunities for students to feel relaxed and comfortable” in his fourth-floor classroom. “That is the only way,” he said, “that learning can occur.”

His room is lined with inspirational quotes, and he likes to begin each lesson with upbeat music. That morning, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” was playing on Susso’s computer as two boys with basketballs under their arms and a girl in a sweatshirt began to saunter in. The girl was happily mouthing the lyrics — “Take back my life song/Prove I’m alright song” — as she pulled a notebook from her backpack and greeted additional classmates as they entered.

Susso then led the class in a series of affirmations — “I am somebody” and “I will leave my mark on my generation” — which were like a pledge of allegiance to the students’ future selves. Susso then had students begin a “do now” exercise, which asked for written responses to a prompt: “Should citizens follow all laws passed by the government?” He then invited students to turn to an “elbow partner” to discuss what they had written.

Up to this point, the lesson was briskly paced and well-organized but not dramatically different from other classrooms. Where Susso really shined was in the ways he got students to think hard about complex issues and the clear rapport he’d already developed with students so early in the year.

Susso believes this personal connection is critical. He’s been known to visit students’ families in the hospital and stays after class to help them learn “life skills.”

At Susso’s Poughkeepsie high school, the adults weren’t always so supportive. He recalled one incident in a math class, when a teacher asked him to solve a problem on the board. Still hiding his vision problems and unable to see the equation, Susso replied simply, “I don’t know.”

The teacher responded by mocking Susso. “We know the people who are going to drop out of college,” he recalled the teacher saying, “if they even make it there.”

Another teacher took umbrage when Susso wore traditional African garb to class.

“If people want to wear their funny clothes,” the teacher said in front of Susso’s classmates, “they can stay in their country; this is America.”

Yet Susso said he and this teacher eventually became extremely close. “He got to know me as person,” Susso said. “He saw how hard I was willing to work.” By year’s end, the teacher was having students interview immigrants around Poughkeepsie and collected their stories in a bound book for the school community to share.

Still, Susso was often carrying a heavy weight, as he knows his students frequently do as well. Back in Gambia, a beloved sister contracted Hepatitis B, and the family worked to get her a visa to travel to the U.S. for treatment. But the visa was denied. Four months later, she died.

In the years immediately after, Susso became determined to go to law school to become an immigration lawyer so he could help families avoid the fate his had endured. Many of his students now, he said, worry about their legal status and that of their families.

In college, a counselor suggested that if Susso really wanted to “empower young people,” he should become a teacher instead.

Susso followed this advice and fulfilled part of his student-teaching requirement at International Community High School in the Bronx. The principal was so impressed, she promised him a job once he got his master’s degree. At age 34, he has now been teaching at the school for more than five years.

Bespectacled and darting about the classroom in brown pants, a beige dress shirt and navy-and-pink tie, he probed his students’ views with good-natured insistence.

When he called on one student who hadn’t volunteered to speak up, she moaned, “Noooo!” And he replied with a coaxing and enthusiastic “Yessss!”

Perla Novas, who is from the Dominican Republic, said she particularly liked how Susso is funny and lets students “talk a little bit” instead of demanding silence. “He cares about us and talks about values and why we should strive to be a better person,” she said. “Not a lot of teachers do that.”

Parache, the student who had watched Susso win his award in class and who is also Dominican, argued that citizens had a special responsibility to follow “all the laws,” because, he said, “when you become a citizen, you take a vow, you make a promise, to be good.”

“So what if the government passed a law that said ‘All Dominicans are to be deported next week,’” Susso inquired. “You said we’re supposed to follow all the laws.”

A female classmate chimed up, “But it’s not just ‘all the laws,'” she objected. “We also have rights.”

“So a law can be unconstitutional?” Susso asked, before sneaking in a review of some key terms and historical concepts, such as the 14th Amendment, the three-fifths compromise (in which slaves were counted as a fraction of a human being), “myth” and “segregation,” which he asked note-taking students to define or explain.

Susso then handed out sheets that contained a historical account of a Chinese family traveling through the American South in the 1950s, beginning to tie their debate to the unit ahead. Susso asked where such a family might sit — at the front or back of a bus — given the era’s Jim Crow laws enforcing racial separation.

“The middle?” one student asked.

Susso laughed, noting there was “no middle” in those days. Some students insisted Chinese passengers would be considered “colored”; others maintained they’d pass as “white.” Susso then had students take turns reading out loud from the passage. The Chinese passengers, it turned out, had been instructed to ride with whites but felt more kinship with blacks and so insisted on sitting at the back.

One student, Nicole Mendez, noted how Susso always went  “very deep into a topic” and was “very good at explaining things,” she said.

Susso again played music — this time a segment from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” — as students sought out new partners to discuss what they’d written about the 1950s story.  Susso said he always provided a two-minute break about halfway through the class, just to make it more inviting. About 60 seconds later, the class was again attentive and focused.

What would happen, Susso asked, if he woke up one day on the wrong side of the bed, “and decided I am now white,” he wondered. Could he do that as the Chinese family had? Why or why not?

A discussion ensued about how Susso and students perceived race in each other and themselves — whether they were “brown,” “black,” “cinnamon,” or “pink.”

Susso asked where “the best place to see segregation” was at their high school.

One girl called out, “The lunch room!” Students nodded knowingly, as they described the self-sorting that went on. “I hang with the Dominicans,” one girl, who indicated she was mixed-race, said.

Bringing the conversation back to the American south, Susso asked who got to decide what race someone was.

“The whites determined where people sat,” one girl said, which then led to the formulation of a more general precept: “The ones with the privilege get to decide.”

Another student countered that race was just “a myth,” utilizing the vocabulary word from earlier in the lesson, and that race didn’t refer to any biological difference. But, she added, “Myths can be powerful.”

Students then summed up what they’d learned in a final individual writing assignment, their “exit ticket,” which he could review later. As the students studiously finished up, a woman’s voice blared over the loudspeaker. “Period one is now over.”

In just 45 minutes, Susso had gracefully and expertly moved his students through several different exercises: reading, writing, and deep class discussions, and provided some music and fun besides.

“He’s an immigrant like us,” Perla Novas said, as she gathered up her books to head to her next class. “He asks questions that make us think.”


Going to court

Memphis charter school sues former principal at center of student protests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students say Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School has been uneasy since the principal was fired in August.

A Memphis charter high school is seeking $300,000 in damages — alleging that its former principal has been encouraging students to transfer from the high school and that he has violated his severance agreement.

In recent weeks, many students and parents have insisted that Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School’s’ former principal, Reginald Williams, was fired unfairly. Parents who support Williams and Patricia Ange — another educator, who was recently let go — crowded into a recent school board meeting to register their disapproval of the school’s decision. And earlier this week, students led a walkout in support of both educators.

Florence Johnson, the lawyer for Memphis Academy, argued in the complaint filed late Wednesday that Williams “conspired” to “disrupt the operations of the school, to lure students away from the school, and to cause financial harm and public embarrassment to [the academy’s] standing in the educational community.”

Williams said he has neither been on campus since he was fired Aug. 10, nor has he spoken with Memphis Academy parents since then.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

“All of this is embarrassing to me,” he told Chalkbeat, calling the lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.” “I haven’t, nor will I ever, impede students’ progress.”

In the court filing, the charter network noted it “allowed Williams to retire early rather than fire him outright for poor performance,” which differs from what school leaders had told parents and students. Parents were told Williams resigned and did not know his departure was about poor results on the state’s test this spring. But in internal emails obtained by Chalkbeat, the network’s executive director explicitly tied Williams’ departure to the scores. Using state test scores to fire teachers is illegal this year in Tennessee after major technical glitches to computerized testing, but it is unclear if the law applies to principals.

Under Williams’ severance agreement, the charter school gave him about $40,000 in exchange for assurance he would not speak ill of his former employer or speak about the agreement. Johnson argues Williams violated that during an Oct. 16 board meeting.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift was at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School to protest firing a beloved principal and teacher.

Ange, a vocal supporter of Williams, had called the former principal and put him on speakerphone during the meeting as parents demanded answers. Williams said at the meeting that he did not have a problem with the decision to let him go.

“My only concern was how it was done,” he said. “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.”

Markayla Crawford, a senior at the high school who was among those who led protests after Williams and Ange were fired, said Williams did not ask her to protest on his behalf and had not heard of Williams contacting other students.

School leaders are “still not giving us answers about what happened,” she said. “All the kids are basically saying the same thing. The school is falling apart and no one knows what’s going on.”

A hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 in Memphis chancery court.

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”