I’m starting a new course this semester called “Covering Education.” It’s focused on reporting on the New York City public school system. My professor, LynNell Hancock, has partnered all of her students with an embed school that has someone on the inside who is willing to serve as a sort of liaison inside the school. I paid a visit to my embed school, Aspirations Diploma Plus High School, in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn today. I thought I’d share a little of my experience:
I walk through the door of Aspirations High School and into the open lobby. The fluorescent lighting bounces off the clean white linoleum floors and freshly painted white walls with blue trim.
It feels like a hospital.
“Um, excuse me, sir?” A voice barks at me from my periphery. It’s ripe with sass.
I haven’t set foot in the school for thirty seconds, and I’ve already blown the security checkpoint.
The nice uniformed security guard takes my ID, lazily fills out a log book and makes me sign my name. I ask her for directions and she vaguely points me to the end of the hall. She snaps her gum loudly at me as if to signify I am someone else’s responsbility now. I turn right down the hall. To the left, in the other half of the building, is another high school, the EBC School. This is a new concept to me. I have always gone to schools that had their own building. Thus, a school is a physical entity defined by its building. Now, I am in one building that houses two schools.
Two minutes in and my mind is already blown.
The secretaries send me further down the hall. I wander down the sterile, well-lit hallway past a hall monitor, perched at the intersection of two paths. From his perch, he can see the end of the hall where the students enter from the outside which is stationed by yet another monitor. These men are not uniformed and are clearly staff members at the school who have a healthy rapport with the students.
I find the classroom I am looking for. Jeff Kaufman, the US history teacher, is a classic New York tough guy with a heart of gold. This former NYPD officer has bushy mustache, a local accent and constantly ends his statements about the state of education with a defeated, “but, hey, what are you gonna do?”
I come right into his classroom and we strike up a conversation. The desks are grouped in pods with tiny computer modules bolted into the center of each. Most of the classrooms are outfitted with these PCs. There is no computer lab here, every class is hooked to the Web. A boy and a girl are at one pod, cutting out templates from a piece of paper. Another boy sits slumped over at a chair with his walker in front of him. He is staring blankly at the front of the class with his headphones turned up.
I assume this is some sort of study hall or free period. I start asking Mr. Kaufman questions about the school. He tells me he has been teaching for 12 years and that makes him one of the oldest people at Aspirations. The staff here is young and progressive. This makes for a fun atmosphere, but things can be a little disorganized.
“It’s a teacher’s dream school,” he says.
He tells me there are 271 students. Not a single one is white. It takes a toll on the kids, makes them feel like a lower class. It doesn’t help that the school is a “transfer” school, which means the population is made up of kids who are overage but still need credits to graduate. Others were kicked out of their old school or had to leave for gang reasons. There is a nursery in the lobby.
Another boy stumbles in. He’s got a Dunkin’ Donuts bag in his hand. His iPod is blasting loud in his ear.
“This is Jamel,” Kaufman says to the boy and me. “Smart kid. I tell ya, if he cared half as much about school as he did music, he could really be something.”
Jamel slumps in his desk then gets out his breakfast and starts eating. Mr. Kaufman pulls out a piece of paper and tells him to get working on his essay.
Then, it dawns on me. This is second period. This is an actual class. Today, four kids showed up for Kaufman’s second period class. His roster shows thirty.
When the bell rings ten minutes later, none of them will have put pencil to paper and even started their essays.
Third period. We move one classroom over. Kaufman is a “traveling teacher.” His next class is a little larger. It starts with six kids and by the time the period is halfway over, the ranks will have swollen to double.
It’s Regents prep week, Kaufman says, which means he has to focus on getting these kids to pass the test which is required for them to receive their diplomas.
He doesn’t hide the fact that expectations are low. He states it plainly at the beginning as he goes over the practice prompt.
“It doesn’t matter what your score is,” he says. “You just have to pass. They don’t care what the number is, as long as its above a certain amount.”
His attitude is probably realistic, but it hurts to watch how plainly both the teachers and students handle the fact that these kids aren’t outstanding. There is no hope that they will be someday.
Just get them to pass.