The years, 2013-2014, were hectic ones for one of the English teachers in a large New York City public high school, in which the enrollment was almost evenly divided between African American, Hispanic and Asian students. In addition to his high school classes, Keith Scalia, as adjunct professor, was teaching a “Critical Thinking” night school class at a CUNY (City University of New York) community college. The students, who were culturally diverse, ranged from honors and regular education students still attending Scalia’s high school, to kids who had dropped out and were seeking to return. It was an elective and the only prerequisite was a passing score of 75 on a state test. It gave the kids a chance to experience a college class, Scalia said. “On the first day, I asked them why they were there. I got a lot of different answers.”
It took a month for the kids to accept one another (The regular students had looked down on the dropouts), but once they did, things began to happen. The class encouraged the students to think for themselves and to express themselves. It soon became apparent that they were unhappy with the way their education was being run. “I’m not allowed to pick my classes,” said one, “My guidance counselor picks them for me.” “I’ve had four teachers [in one course] in a year,” said another. “The things that I must study, I’m not interested in,” said a third. Some complained that the class hours didn’t fit their schedules. (Many had to work after school to help support their families.) “OK,” Scalia asked them, “What’s going to make you come to school then? How are you not going to become a burden to society? Let’s fix education!”
Scalia required the class to participate in writing a policy paper, which would propose legitimate solutions to the perceived weaknesses in the educational system. The kids embraced it. “They became like grad school researchers,” Scalia said, “We would roll in lap tops for them, and they loved it. The entire chalk board was filled with problems they had come up with.” Five groups worked on researching the areas of primary concern, and in the spring of 2013, the class issued its first policy paper. It was 5,300 words long with a separate section for each of the five areas they had been researching. The paper recommended giving students a greater voice in the choice of subjects they would be taking, but the main thrust was to suggest a revamping and restructuring of the systems currently in vogue in New York City high schools. The paper is a remarkably well researched, comprehensive, and erudite document. It put me in mind of a doctoral thesis. “What made this policy paper groundbreaking is the fact that it was written entirely by my high school students,” Scalia said.
At the time, Scalia was an active member of the New York nonprofit, Educators for Excellence (EE), whose members included 4,000 teachers. The teachers were disenchanted with the present educational system and were agitating for change, Scalia said. On behalf of EE, Scalia and another teacher had been lobbying the NYC Council and local NY state legislators. “I told them what was going on in NYC high schools,” Scalia said. EE promptly sent the students’ policy paper to its 4,000 teachers and to local and state politicians. Soon, politicians started coming in to speak with Scalia’s students. “When they saw what the students were doing in one of NYC’s worst high schools, they were impressed,” Scalia said.
In the fall semester of 2013, a new issue was presented to Scalia’s class. In 2010, Common Core was released by the National Governors Association in an attempt to bring uniform standards of education to participating states. By March 2013, about 45 states and the District of Columbia had adopted it. But by that time, many found it objectionable that the Obama administration in its Race to the Top initiative had linked federal education grants to compliance with the state devised Common Core Standards. Many objected to federal control and overreach, as well as to the confusion about mandated testing. The big objection however was the perceived unfairness of holding all schools, even poorly performing schools, to the same high standards as the higher performing ones. It was feared that low mandated test scores by underperforming schools would reflect poorly on affected districts and adversely affect teachers’ careers. The teachers’ union in NYC was particularly adamant in opposing the Common Core standards. Scalia’s students liked many of the components of Common Core. “But could it work here?” Scalia asked them, “Let’s take a look at it. We’ll do our own research and decide if it’s good for us or not.” Once again the class immersed itself in researching the available information on the subject. They concluded that Common Core could work at their high school.
In order to address the concerns of parents and educators, John King, NY State Chancellor of Education, was conducting listening tours across the state. King was getting killed by parent groups, who felt that the Common Core standards would hurt their kids, Scalia said. The newspapers were duly reporting the parents’ outrage. Scalia asked his principal if he could take a group of his students to one of King’s December 2013 meetings to be held at a Manhattan high school. The principal approved.
Nine girls volunteered to go. It was like throwing them into the lion’s den, said Scalia. The meeting was televised. In their turn, the girls took the stage. “We’re advocating for Common Core,” they said, “We believe it is good for the country and good for students. We can do this.” The union reps and almost everyone in attendance started booing the girls as they spoke. Teachers were yelling at students, Scalia said. The girls, ever after being known as “the bad-ass girls,” never backed down. As reported in Chalk Beat, union reps accused Scalia of bringing a dog and pony show to the forum. “It was probably my best day of teaching,” said Scalia.
Shortly thereafter, President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, came to New York University to advocate for Common Core. Chancellor King invited the girls to attend, which they did. Scalia missed the meeting because of his wife’s surgery.
Two of the girls in Scalia’s Critical Thinking class started a chapter of the Future Educators Association (FEA) at the school. The class had piqued their interest in becoming teachers. Founded in 1937, the FEA’s stated goal was “to interest the most promising young people in teaching as a career” They soon caught the attention of FEA’s national office in Washington and they were invited down to teach a workshop at the National FEA convention in April 2014.
Rather than write another policy paper, the girls wanted to produce a video, similar to the one Scalia had done with one of his students the year before (April 2013), when the student had been threatened with deportation. That video had changed the mindset of many of the students throughout the high school, and the thinking of some politicians at the highest levels of government. (See Keith Scalia, Part 1, and The Redemption of Mona Mahraoui at coastalbreezenews.com.)
This 28-minute video (March 2014), produced by Scalia, but written and directed by two of his students, was a collection of cameos showing what the students thought and what they were doing about it. The recurring theme was that if given a seat at the table, they could help make the educational process more effective. “Students should have a say in what they learn and how they learn it,” they said, “If we don’t use our voice, then changes will not be made.” (A position recently demonstrated by the students of the Parkland, Florida high school.)
In April 2014, Scalia took Charmaine Symister, Manisha Hansraj and Vanessa Paulino, all seniors, down to Washington for FEA’s national convention. Charmaine and Manisha had brought their video along and played it to both students and educators participating in the FEA workshops. That afternoon, Scalia took all three girls over to meet President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. FEA picked the groups putting on the best presentations for this honor. Scalia said. There was time for some give and take between Secretary Duncan, the students and himself. And then, it was over.
All three of these students are in college today.
“Because of the depth of research and commitment of the students over several semesters, an Independent Study class was allowed to run at the high school,” Scalia said, “The class was cancelled after one semester so teachers could teach scripted lessons and test prep.”8