A  Tale of Two Schools: who’s to blame for the differences?



This was written by Brett Rosenthal, assistant principal at the high-achieving South Side High School in New York. He used to work at Jamaica High School in New York City.

By Brett Rosenthal

For 10 years, I was an English teacher and a dean of students at Jamaica High School in New York City. All of my students were black or Latino. For the most part, they were poor and their families were recent immigrants. Jamaica High School has been featured in the media as a place where learning didn’t happen. Sadly, it is a casualty of the latest reform agenda to close schools that are labeled as ineffective and it is now being broken up into four smaller specialized programs. That does not mean, by the way, that kids zoned for the old school will be allowed to attend. Many will be shuffled into over-the-counter registrations only to land in another school which will be targeted as failing as well. Oddly, the press and the Board of Education blame the teachers, yet those who ran the system and create educational policy have not been held accountable for their past or present contributions to the school’s demise.

I now am an educator in a very different school.

For the past four years I have worked as an assistant principal at South Side High School on Long Island. My new school is rated one of the best high schools in the country each year, an honor I think it deserves. My experiences are unique — I have moved from a school that is being closed in New York City, where teachers have been labeled as ineffective, to a school that is a model of excellence. If I were still there, I guess I would be considered ineffective as well. My wife who remained in Jamaica High now unfairly bears that label.

So what are the differences between these two schools? I think about that a lot. Although there are many differences, there are five that stand out.

The first is parent support and involvement. At Jamaica High School parental support was almost non-existent. It would be tough to find working phone numbers to contact a parent about a student’s behavior or poor academics. My students quite often were being raised by other relatives, such as an elderly grandmother or anaunt, who worked severaljobs and were unable to be involved in the child’s life. It was rare to have students who came from a family where both parents lived with the child. It amazed me to see the difference in my new school. Parents fill our auditorium when an event takes place. They are in contact with teachers, guidance counselors and even the principal on a regular basis. Here the phone numbers work. How can any school be effective when parental involvement is not there?

The second is the sorting of students into tracks. When I worked at Jamaica, classes were tracked. There was only one honors class for each grade and the special education students were kept in small self-contained classrooms throughout the day. I’m in my fifteenth year of education and I felt fear twice — once as a substitute in one of those rooms. New York City has specialized high schools for higher achieving students, essentially emptying out all of the higher level students from neighborhood schools.

The city system is a big tracking system, with almost no black or Latino students in its elite schools. And schools like Jamaica High have all of the negative features of low-track classes.

This is what is now happening with many new schools that are being established. Of course some of these schools do well, for they are choosing who they allow into their building, and of course kids who don’t work out leave. The statistics are therefore very deceiving.

At South Side, the district believes in heterogeneity throughout. It begins from the first grade through senior year. It exists in all classrooms, and it is amazing to see. An inclusion student with a learning disability may be sitting next to and working with the valedictorian. The classes are racially integrated. Our teachers work extremely hard on establishing lesson plans to meet the needs of learners and challenge all levels of students in the room. Teaching in the school is challenging, but it is well worth it.

When a system allows schools to be tracked while segregating its highest achievers in specialized schools or academies, schools such as Jamaica are left with a student body that is made up of lower performing students. It is academic apartheid.

Third is discipline. Generally speaking, students who are academically frustrated and do not have successful student role models tend to misbehave. Jamaica High School had the students who were left behind. As a dean there, I saw first-hand how the Board of Education’s actions effectivelycreated schools that were then labeled unsafe. By pulling higher achieving students out and replacing them with more disruptive students, an anti-academic, disruptive climate is created. Jamaica High taught the students who were rejected from other schools.

Combine this with an ineffective discipline policy and it is easy to see why disruptive incidents at these “ineffective” buildings are frequent. We were sent students straight out of prisons, some wearing ankle bracelets while others had extensive criminal records. We were known as a dumping ground. The system set this up, yet the teachers are bearing the blame.

The discipline policy at South Side is much different. If a student is found to break the rules, they are punished appropriately and consistently. The principal and superintendent support the idea of keeping their schools safe. For example, drug possession automatically results in a superintendent suspension hearing. In the city, we were often lucky to get a 10- to 15-day suspension. I can remember dealing with students who were suspended 15 to 20 times and they would come back to our building and laugh. This would not be tolerated in my new district. There is a clear understanding at South Side: learning takes place without disruption. The teachers in New York City and other cities have no input when it comes to discipline.

The fourth is leadership. New York City (as well as other urban districts) recruit candidates from programs that provide crash training and then place candidates into leadership roles. They are often people from private industry who do not truly understand schooling or have the experience to run school systems. Many of them are extremely new to education or were never teachers. They do not understand the culture of schools, instruction and the complex dynamics between students and teachers. Experience matters both in schools and in business.

The school leaders at South Side are experienced administrators who have made a long term commitment to educating students and to the school. My superintendent has served our district for over twenty five years. All schools need administrators who are highly qualified, dedicated to the profession and not hired due to political connections.

How many years working in a public school do former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, current New York schools chief Denis Walcott and former New York City Chancellor Cathleen Black (who was in the job only a few months) have combined? Less than any member of the administrative team in my new school.

The fifth and final reason is the method by which teachers are hired. When I was hired to teach in New York City years ago, someone at a hiring hall called “Rosenthal” and said, “Jamaica High School. Next!” I then started my career as a teacher. I did not have any teaching experience. This was how schools were staffed. There was a time when New York City was recruiting teachers from other countries because no one wanted to work there. There was little value placed on experience then, and there is less now. Now the solution is Teaching Fellows and Teach for America. Young people who never intended to teach receive a crash course and teach in urban and rural schools. Since most of them will move on after a few years, a revolving door of inexperienced teachers is created. An army of short-timers is not the solution to troubled schools.

At South Side, experience is not dismissed, it is valued. Carefully chosen applicants must perform demonstration lessons, while observers with trained eyes make informed judgments on their skills. Tenure is not easily granted, it is earned. It takes years to become a good teacher. After tenure, teachers are expected to continue to grow. It takes many years to become a master teacher.

Although there are many other factors that distinguish an ineffective school system from an effective one, it is interesting to note that the five that have been listed above are not under any teacher’s control.

Yet modern education “reformers” think that evaluating teachers by test scores and closing schools will produce schools like South Side. Perhaps it is their own lack of experience that makes them believe that is true. Or perhaps it is their lack of courage to make the tough political decisions that would result in more equitable schools. In either case, the kids of Jamaica High School and its teachers lose.