Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What We Have Lost. An open letter to Dr. Yohuru Williams

Dear Dr. Williams,
Aixa B. Rodriguez, Dr. Yohuru Williams, and Melissa Tomlinson
 Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing you speak again at the Caucus of Working Educators Conference in Philadelphia at the Old First Church. You brought us to school and church with your words. You cut through the bias of how the mainstream media presents students who protest, with the juxtaposition of Malala Yousefi fighting for education in her country, vs. student groups like Newark Student Union, Chicago Student Union, and Philadelphia Student Union; one celebrated and the others having the police called on them, wrists broken, harassments and threats.  We gave the Nobel Prize to Malala, shook our head at how terrible it was she got shot, and Chris Christie is shouting down and humiliating a student activist who asks him when he will show up to a town hall. We celebrated the Arab Spring, admired it from afar, and attacked Occupy Wall Street. Forty-three students were murdered in Mexico for the threat their protests presented to the powers that be. What have we lost that we cannot see this?
A second point you made is the selling of the "college and career ready" lie. There is not enough scholarship money for everyone to be a scientist, a doctor or a lawyer. There is bias inherent in the statement, which implies that any other job that doesn't require college is somehow less valuable. What have we lost that in our effort to encourage students to aim for higher education, we have denigrated every other profession? Everyone is worthy of respect. From the waitress and bus driver to the teacher and scientist.

Why is the push for college and career ready leading to narrowed curricula? Where does CTE (Career and Technical Education) come in? Why are those classes being pushed out or completely taken away? High school used to be a place where you could leave with skills that could get you a job. We have lost this. You know from our conversations how I feel about the small schools movement in New York City. I have  gone from thinking it was innovative and responsive, to seeing what it was really being used for; breaking unions, pushing out veteran teachers of color, and setting the stage for structural, institutional ageism.  I am now seeing it from the student’s perspective.

NY BAT Aixa B. Rodriguez
What have students lost with this deform? Students and families are sold the idea that all of these schools have a theme and they have more choices. In reality, their “schools” are hallways. Turf mentality is reinforced as students are banned from walking in certain areas, uniforms and paint on walls designate which school's territory is which. As a student, you get to take the classes the school offers and that is it. Small schools cannot afford everything that big comprehensive community schools did. They never will. We have accepted less for the generations of students who have been subjected to these reforms due to the narrative of failure and the subtext of the stereotypes of violent black and brown youth. Not everyone can find things to fit their bodies in a boutique. That’s why we have department stores. Not every student can find what he or she needs in a small school that is why we need to return to big schools. Accepting the small boutique school model is essentially forcing a square peg into a round hole.

What have teachers lost in small schools in NYC? We have lost departments, where an experienced and knowledgeable department head provided mentoring and curricula guidance. Teachers of all experience levels were in the same department. Incidentally, many teachers with advanced degrees, suffering poverty as adjuncts would be perfect department chairs. We have lost the ability to serve all special needs students with the programs they need and instead pile all of them in ICT classes, add an extra teacher and hope for the best; counting on resilience, instead of giving the kid what they need. Classes are disrupted, teachers can’t teach and students struggle to learn. Many a small school just asks parents to agree to IEP changes because the services are not available.

We have lost languages, and students take whatever the school offers and do not have a choice. What a loss in a global economy. English Language Learners, which I teach, are not able to receive the proper leveled classes with clear separate curricula. Small schools don't have the numbers, so they are all piled together to form a class. This is not allowing the advanced to progress at their pace, the intermediates to have targeted instruction, nor the beginners the nurturing they need.
We have lost so much. I know you grew up in a family that values music and creativity. You understand how it feels for me to see that my students do not get access to a proper experience in music and art. The patchwork, Band-Aid quality of instruction in the visual arts, music and drama in a city like NYC that is happening in many small schools is painful. Schools with huge stages used to host amazing musical productions. With multiple schools in buildings, drama and music departments if they even exist are of one person in each school with no time to collaborate. The productions that are put on, fashion shows etc. are a far cry from what was even done in the 60s and 70s. We lie and tell ourselves the small jazz band is trying, when it’s painful to our ears. New York City used to have student orchestras playing at their graduations. Orchestras.  In regular schools, not specialized schools. We lie and say an after school club with a keyboard and guitar and learning a few songs for a performance is enough. What have we lost?

Don't get me started on STEM, STEAM, or whatever acronym they have come up with lately. In buildings with shared facilities we don't have proper fully functional, staffed and supplied science laboratories with lab technicians. Teachers have to take one day out of their week to do labs in class. WE LOST INSTRUCTIONAL TIME!

Tests, tests, tests. A simple comparison of the regents tests before they were required for graduation and after they were required for graduation will evidence my next point. When everyone has to take the test, the quality and comprehensiveness of the test is lowered to the lowest common denominator. ELA used to be a 2-day test. It used to include more than one essay, and students used to be able to retest on the components they did badly on, not wait a whole year to retake the test. 
            Finally, what is the human cost of sending the message to kids that they are failures, their teachers are failures, their schools are disposable, and can just be shut down. What is the cost of not having schools as community anchors, with alumni associations and networks that last into adulthood? How do we quantify the magnitude of such loss? What is the agenda when these school reforms are done to largely minority communities and nothing similar can be found in predominantly white communities?
 We have lost so much. We have lost our minds and schools are losing their souls.

In solidarity,

Aixa B. Rodriguez


  1. Bravo! Ditto... and all truth... I feel for the losses of our youth... STOP THIS MADNESS... bring back authentic education and FULLY FUND IT!!!

  2. Brava! THis is exactly what I lived through for 10 years - 3 completely autonomous schools on one campus (and me the shared librarian - at once Switzerland and Belgium). We are slowly coming back from that, having reconstituted as a comprehensive community school. We shall see if we can get it back because 80% of the staff have less than 10 years experience.


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