A Tale of Two Schools, One Building
Opinion by Nicholas Simmons in the Wall Street Journal
I taught at a New York City charter, upstairs from a school where the neglect of students is tragic.
Over the past three school years, I unintentionally participated in a tragic educational case study on the west side of Harlem. I worked in the same building as the Wadleigh Secondary School, at which 0% of students in grades six through eight met state standards in math or English. That isn’t a typo: Not a single one of the 33 students passed either exam, though many of the questions are as straightforward as “What is 15% of 60?”
Two floors above Wadleigh, I taught math at Success Academy Harlem West, a public charter school. The students there eat in the same cafeteria, exercise in the same gym and enjoy recess in the same courtyard. They also live on the same blocks and face many of the same challenges. The poverty rate at Wadleigh is 72%; at Harlem West, it is 60%. At both schools, more than 95% of students are black or Hispanic. About the only difference is that families at Harlem West won an admissions lottery.
Yet for our students, the academic year ended in triumph: 96% were proficient in math—compared with 35% citywide—and 80% scored at the advanced level. In reading and writing, 75% of our students were proficient, compared with 30% citywide.
This was not easy. My students do not have easy lives. Many are in households in which no English is spoken, or have moved in and out of homeless shelters. Others shoulder the primary responsibility of raising younger siblings. Yet we set high expectations. Our school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and teachers spend evenings and weekends speaking with families about their children’s progress. This blueprint works. Rigorous, well-designed and joyful schools can overcome the challenges of poverty.
Last month, instead of acknowledging the astounding lack of learning at schools such as Wadleigh, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a hodgepodge of feel-good programs. He will create new Advanced Placement courses that students from Wadleigh won’t be prepared to take. He will enlist “literacy specialists” to try to counter chaotic classrooms and poor instruction. In short, he will do nothing effective.
I often think about those Wadleigh students, navigating unruly hallways and classrooms. They hold the same promise as my students, but of those who move on to high school, fewer than 10% graduate with the skills to complete college-level work. What if those Wadleigh students had attended the public school only two floors above them?
New York City has the resources to create world-class public schools for all students. The Big Apple spends $20,331 per pupil. That ranks No. 2 among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., according to 2012-13 census data. The problem is that in New York the needs of adults supersede those of children. My colleagues finished summer vacation on Aug. 3, underwent two weeks of professional development and welcomed back students on Aug. 17. The district’s unionized teachers were required to arrive one day before the school year began on Sept. 9.
Harlem West almost didn’t open in 2011. Mr. de Blasio, then the city’s public advocate, opposed my school’s move into the building on the grounds that it would cramp Wadleigh. “I believe in my heart there is time and the opportunity to protect what is here,” Mr. de Blasio said. That’s the mentality of city officials, who want to “protect” the entrenched interests of a system in which only 19% of black students in district schools are working on grade level.
On Wednesday, families across New York City will rally in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn, march across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, and call on our leaders to tackle this crisis. Excellent public schools shouldn’t be a privilege enjoyed only by those lucky enough to win an admissions lottery; they should be the standard. The city has the resources—now it needs the will.
Mr. Simmons is a vice principal in the Success Academy Charter School network.
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