“One principal, two schools, and a high-stakes experiment gone awry”–Chalkbeat

Make no mistake about it; we can’t be careful and cautious with schools that have large numbers of “at risk” students. For these students, applying “tentative”, indecisive, or scared tactics insures their educational, psychological, and often their physical deaths. We fail students if we are not: “Stretching”, “bending” and “braking” the rules every day; because the rules favor the entitled few, and not the disenfranchised many. But let me first define “at risk” from a professional educators perspective; since over time, some well, and not so well-meaning actors, have come forward to provide parents and society with an incomplete definition.

I would define an “at risk” high school student as:

 Any child whose family is not able to finance after-school, weekend, holiday break and summer break informal educational experiences. (i.e. Museum trips/programs, theater, summer public library visits, summer reading-study plan, science-art-dance-music summer camp, parent organized “mentoring” experience, “educational” summer job–internship, fencing, writing, STEM enrichment classes, etc.)

 Any child who is on the wrong (down) side of the parent education, information and financial resources gap.

 Any child who has only engaged in unsupervised “play”, for their K-8 summer breaks; who now upon arriving to high school is missing up to a cumulative school year of learning.

 Any child who has spent the majority of their K-8 school experience in “test-prep-factory” schools (all test prep, all of the time!) They will be horribly underexposed to art, music, and dance, reading for fun, STEM; intellectual and creativity building educational experiences. (Activities that ironically raises test scores!)

 Any child who has been “retained” (held over) somewhere in the K-8 school experience; the risk of not being successful in high school increases with the number of “held over” years.

 Any child arriving from outside of the US with “missing” school years.

 Any child for whom English is their second language.

 Any child arriving to school from another English speaking nation’s school system; but who is also struggling with ESL issues.

 Any child below proficiency, and barely “over the edge” of proficiency on K-8 standardized reading and mathematics exams.

 Any child whose parents lack the sufficient and necessary information, and who does not have access to the “inner” (inside) special knowledge of the “workings” of the US educational system; and therefore can’t properly advocate for their child.

 Any child whose parents are not fully conversant in the English language; or whose knowledge of the American system of education is not sufficient to protect and advance their child’s interest in that system.

 Any child who is living in a group home, who is homeless, who is living in temporary housing; or living temporarily or long-term with a family member.

 Any child who is chronically hungry, lacks adequate resources for clothing (seasonally appropriate clothing), shoes, sneakers, money for hygiene products, clean clothes; and the ability to pay for educational supplies and school experiences.

 Any child suffering, permanently or temporarily from a seriously chronic (academic-attendance challenging) disability, physically debilitating condition or disease.

 Any child who is the “de facto” adult in their house, and/or in their lives; any child who must take on all, or a major part of the parenting duties for younger siblings.

 Any child who is forced to work full or part-time so that the family can survive.

 Any child whose parents are “not functioning” due to an addiction, dysfunction, mental illness, incarceration, or just abandonment.

 Any child whose parents have essentially taken an unfortunate “parental responsibility” step too far back, when their child reaches high school.

 Any child who has been specifically abandoned by their mother.

 Any child (boy or girl) who is a biological parent.

 Any child who lives in a house that is unnaturally stressful and not peaceful; and a place not conducive to study.

 Any child who has/is being subject to mental or physical abuse.

 Any child who has officially engaged (i.e. probation) the criminal justice system.

 Any child whose parents lack the most productive and most effective communicative skills when engaging school staff.

 Any child whose parents have not equipped them with the “rubrics”, rules, techniques and communicative skills to properly negotiate and communicate with authority figures; and in the way in which they are able to effectively advance their personal interest.

 Any child with a diagnose or undiagnosed learning disability.

 Any child who is seeking to establish an identity, meaning, or seeking incorrectly to “self-heal” through the act of verbal or physical bullying.

 Any child who is attempting to “self-medicate”, close and heal wounds by way of alcohol, drugs or sex.

 Any child or parent who is living in the US in an “undocumented” status.

 Any child who must translate for their parents.

 Any child who is the first in their family to go to college.

 Any child who has been “academically detained” (and STEM restrained) by not having taken the 8th grade “gate keeper-stopper”: algebra.

 Any child who has “aged out”, but not graduated from middle school.

 Any child who unfortunately lives in a: “their education does not matter” zip code.

 Any child who unfortunately lives in a community where the elected, civic and religious leaders, don’t believe, understand (or seriously advocate for) the role of education as the primary tool of individual and community empowerment, and generational improvement.

 Any child who is part of a: racial group, ethnicity, gender, cultural profile, religion (or no religion or religious beliefs), economic status, who presently or historically faces discrimination, biases treatment and is subject to lowered service and expectations.

 Any child that must pass through a “gauntlet” of dangerous and despairing environmental conditions when traveling to, and back home from school.

 Any child who is part of the academically “under-potential” performing “near-do wells” student group. (a common resting place for Black and Latino males)

 Any child of color who defines things like: academic achievement, reading, interest in STEM, speaking English in a particular way, as “acting or being” White.

 Any child who unfortunately lives in a school district where that district is the primary source available (the main, or near the top) of the only way to gain personal income for the citizens of that community.

 Any child who lives in a community where the parents and residents are not effectively organized politically to protect the interest of their children.

 Any child who arrives to your school and has been exposed to the following:

 Consecutive (back to back) or repeated instructional years exposed to: a “1st year teacher”; an “uncertified teacher”; “long term substitute teacher”; a Black or Brown teacher with low self-esteem; a “retired (but still) on the job teacher”; a poorly practicing teacher, a biased, racist or discriminatory teacher; a teacher who engages in disinterest, and in low expectations.

 A previous learning environment that was disorderly, unsafe, disorganized, chaotic, unfocused; and that wasted a great deal of quality instructional time.

 A K-8 experience where the principal was a “Place holder”; and had no sense of a strategic vision, pedagogical competency, ethical-moral standards, and lacked courage and bravery.

 Any child who can’t read a high school textbook, can’t write a 3rd grade response to a question (being kind here to some high schoolers, and possibly unkind to most 3rd graders); and therefore also can’t write a proper response to a question on a standardized exam because they are unable to effectively read the question.

 Any child who does not have access to proper basic medical care, access to allergy and environmental poisoning evaluation, ophthalmological (eyes-glasses), otolaryngological (hearing), psychological and dental health care.

 Any child whose is not “emotionally and/or physically aggressive” (as defined in a: “I win and you lose” cultural society); whose inclines toward non-violence, who is quiet, quietly thoughtful and reflective, introverted, and reserved.

 Any child who is “disconnected” from other students (friends); the staff and faculty, or the many events, activities, projects and programs taking place in the school.

 Any child of who arrives to high school, having not been adequately academically prepared to do high school work by virtue of their previous K-8 learning experience.

 Any student who practices a religion or family life style (i.e. vegetarianism) that is different from the majority practices of the school staff and strident body.

 Any student who is a racial, ethnic or national minority in your school. (And it is not uncommon for “majority-minority” (Black) schools to ignore their Latino, Asian, Indian, Pakistani and White students and parents.

 Any LGBT child: aware, not aware, struggling, confused or depressed fearing, or receiving parental, family or religious affiliation rejection.

 Any Black, Latino, or any child of color who has been adequately academically prepared; and are on, or above grade level, or a product of a previous (K-8) gifted and talented program. (at risk of: “unlearning”, “stagnated” and “degenerative” academic learning)

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates “smartness” (intellectual curiosity, love of reading and books, interested in a non-stereotypical future exciting career aspiration (i.e. archeologist, botanist, entrepreneur, astrophysicist, ballerina etc.); a student who pursues the highest career aspirations possible.

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates an interest or ability in a “non-stereotypical” activities for example: fencing, gulf, swimming, lacrosse, painting-sculpture, gymnastics, tennis, opera, etc.

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates an interest and ability in anything STEM.

 Any girl student who either professes or demonstrates an interest and ability in anything STEM.

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates an interest in any non-stereotypical hobby, music preferences, dressing style, participates in activities like Boy or Girl scouting, strong and serious religious practitioners; any student who does not “keep it (stereotypically) real” in how they live their lives; in short students who could be subjected to being teased for: “not acting Black”.

 Any student whose gifts and talents have not been discovered (uncovered), and nurtured, encouraged and developed prior to arriving to your school.

 Any Black and Latino male student, regardless of their level of K-8 academic proficiency, intellectual interest, level of skills, talents and gifts.

 Any Black and Latino male student who dares to act, or be smart; and who dares to get high grades.

To be honest, I have never reviewed the student rosters of either Boys and Girls or Medgar Evers High Schools. But I am convinced that like most of our urban high schools a large number of the students who attend those two schools would fit in one or more of the “at risk” categories I have presented.
The larger the number of “at risk” students; the larger amount of experimentation is needed. Now I am not talking about the use of a recklessness and a cavalier gambling approach to achieving student and school success; after all “at risk” students already face an inordinate amount of “bad odds” scenarios that stand between them and academic success; rather I do believe that “new”, “alternative” and creative methods must be employed, if these students are to succeed.

Let’s be clear “experimentation” does not mean politically convenient, or intellectually lazy and professionally crazy. Doing something like placing an urban high school principal (anyone and anywhere) as the school based leader in charge of two schools (particularly two that are geographically far from each other) is the height of irresponsibility and callous cynicism. Clearly the people who made that decision in the NYCDOE either never lead an urban high school; or have, but cared little about both the educational well-being of those two schools and the communities (Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights Brooklyn, NY) that house them. How they were able to convince Black civic and political leaders to sign onto such an obviously ridiculous plan is a topic for another post. Just imagine the public, press, political and parent outcry at the suggestion of allowing the principals of either Bronx Science or Stuyvesant high schools, being allowed to split their school leadership time with a struggling high school; yes, all we could do is imagine because it ain’t happening!

The public school system in its “natural state” and political-cultural structure is designed to “lose” (fail) specific groups of students (i.e. the students at: Boys & Girls and Medgar Evers.) And since a large percentage of these students are on the before-mentioned “at risk” list; the fundamental problem is that these students are placed in a position of risk by the very system that should protect and educate them. The “risk” then for these students is for the school to follow the standard plan-of-action. “Status qua”, “not rocking the boat”, failing to: “shake things up”, is an educational death sentence for the students of both schools. But a much-needed radical approach to schooling must also be well thought out.

I am not sure what exactly a “master principal” is; but what I do know from my 11 years’ experience as an urban high school principal, that leadership effort took the attention and application of all of my physical and emotional energy. I arrived to the school in the morning when it was dark; and left the school in the evening when it was dark. I worked many Saturdays, during holiday-semester breaks, during the summer when I was technically “off”; and spent the bulk of my school day moving around the school, in and out of classrooms talking-listening to school family members, observing students-teachers, constantly evaluating learning and instruction, monitoring and managing the school environment; on evenings and weekends I often made home visits (from Park Slope to the Pink Houses!), or attended an event where a student was being honored or making a presentation. The only thing I hated was having to attend a meeting during the day, and thus be out of the school building!
Perhaps, I am not “master principal enough”; but I could not see myself spreading my efforts between two schools; the “at risk” factor was so great that even on those mornings when I woke up sick at 3:30 in the morning, I pushed-crawled myself out of the house because all I could think about was: “If I stay in this sick bed today, some student will be lost.”

Stop Playing…

The principalship if done correctly, should not provide a lot of “free time”. For every problem you solve, or plan you put into action; ten more are awaiting your attention; there is always more that you can do in the march toward creating a successful school. I always felt that I had more ideas and challenges to work on then I had time; and there was definitely more work then there was me! And so let us not mislead parents and communities as to the awesome requirements and responsibilities of the job.
Let us also not play games with other people’s children. Both schools need and require a full-time principal; but they also need a full-time innovative, revolutionary and bold strategic plan of action. How about expanding MEHS into a new building; and making B&GHS so attractive (as it once was) such that the building could be fully utilized. And this will work not because of “gimmicks”; but because someone, somewhere thinks that the students of both schools are worthy of serious thought and attention; and then we could see the power of a thoughtful and caring plan of experimentation-action that sought to save, and not sink student’s hopes and dreams.

Michael A. Johnson is a former Teacher, Principal and Superintendent.