At around 5 o’clock on the Friday before spring break, I shuffled a few papers around and tidied my classroom, ready for a much-deserved week off from my third year of teaching in the South Bronx.
All was hauntingly quiet as I made my way through the empty hallways of the small school, until I gazed through the window of the 10th grade math room. My jaw dropped.
About 20 students crowded around a few tables were listening to music and intensely focused on algebra problems. Algebra! I looked at my colleague and the students in awe and asked her what the heck everyone was still doing at school.
“Doing math,” the teacher shrugged, with a slight smile.
I later asked what her secret was and why so many kids were “doing math” instead of outside causing trouble or celebrating the beginning of spring break. She explained she designed a unit where students could earn whatever grade they chose. As long as they mastered each assignment, they would get as many chances as needed before moving on to the next task. Students saw the opportunity to earn an “A” and some refused to leave until they got there.
I have not thought about that Friday before spring break in years.
But I’ve been reading so much about the Philadelphia schools lately. First, there was the Inquirer’s seven-part series on violence in Philadelphia’s pubic schools that read more like a police blotter than an investigative report. Then I read the news that armed police officers may be placed in troubled schools, and that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman may be moving away from small high schools.
And I began to think back to my experiences as a teacher in one of the most crime-infested neighborhoods in the Bronx. And to wonder why it was that our school felt like one of the safest places in all of New York City.
A haven in a tough place
I taught ninth-grade English at Mott Haven Village Preparatory High School from 2004 to 2008. I was just out of college and it was my first job with “real” responsibility.
The school with fewer than 400 students occupied less than a ﬂoor and a half of the former South Bronx High School. It was far from perfect. Most students entered our classroom two to three years behind in reading and math and carried with them the problems of living in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods. Abuse, neglect, gang affiliation, and extreme poverty were all too familiar realities for our kids.
But violence in the school was rarely an issue.
In the four years I spent teaching at the school, I only remember a handful of ﬁghts. Sure, I often heard horror stories from other New York City Public School teachers similar to the Inquirer’s ﬁndings in Philadelphia, a pack of students bullying another student until it escalated into assault, teachers being punched or cursed out, and weapons in school, but I never saw or witnessed acts of extreme violence in my own school.
But at Mott Haven, students often stayed in the building long after the last bell, attendance was higher than 90 percent, and the kids generally got along and accepted one another. One year a lesbian couple was voted “class couple” in the yearbook, a first for the Bronx.
I checked in with a few old colleagues to ensure I wasn’t thinking in too rose-colored a way about my old teaching days.
“Mott Haven was a haven,” said Kety Cossey, that math teacher, who now works in a public school in Houston, Texas.
“I think students were just so desensitized to violence, they didn’t want to deal with it in school,” said Alana Asrelsky, another former colleague who moved on to a charter school in Connecticut.
Leading through wisdom and caring
But when I asked them why our school was safe, despite the surroundings and past experiences of the kids, they both agreed that the answer was in the school’s leadership.
Like a matriarch of the school, Ana Maldonado, founder and former principal of Mott Haven Village Preparatory High School, could be considered another Wise Latina of the South Bronx.
So rather than speculate what Maldonado did or didn’t do to make our school safe, I simply gave her a call.
Since retired, in her words of wisdom about school violence, Maldonado didn’t mention the words “suspension,” “zero tolerance,” “district regulations,” “lock down,” “alternative school,” or “incident reports.”
She spoke about building a sense of community starting with a practical plan that addressed what the kids needed most.
Rather than hire an outside contractor to tell teachers, parents, and students what they needed, the plan was written by the community and by people who worked with kids everyday.
“If all groups of people understand the mission of the school, the students begin to see we are all in this for them, and we begin to recognize and hear their voices, ” said Maldonado.
Community, not crackdowns
Maldonado explained that schools that struggle with violence lack a real sense of community. Administrators and teachers work alone and frustrated, with no cohesive plan of action. There’s little discussion about how to work with the kids.
“I feel sorry for the students and staff who have people barking at them and telling them what to do and not considering them in the process,” said Maldonado.
When problems arose, Maldonado said, discipline was handed down with care. Rather than jumping to punishment, her philosophy was to investigate why a student behaved a certain way. Asking why allowed teachers to deal with and defuse behaviors rather than perpetuating them or passing them off to someone else.
“People get too caught up teaching to the content,” said Maldonado. “Across the board, starting with the superintendent, the student is not looked at as a human being. Not just academically, the student is a person who needs to be nurtured and have learning put in a practical way.”
As our phone call came to an end my mind began to drift back to the countless meetings, conversations, and questions we would ask about our students. Why Juan was so articulate, but never wrote more than a paragraph? Why Jared couldn’t sit still? Why Maria would be so defensive and emotional over any small comment from her peers?
Maldonado’s mantra of community building and genuinely getting to know the students began to make sense again. I was falling back under her spell.
But then I remembered how exhausting teaching was. That was one reason why I left it.
“It’s a lot of work to get a school to work well,” admitted Maldonado. “If people want to stay in the business, it’s worth the effort to invest in planning and discussion.”
I’m sure there are inspiring principals like Maldonado and public schools with a real sense of community in Philadelphia. Let’s hope their back-to-community methods spread, rather than the latest quota or district regulation that only reveals a lack of understanding that, politicians’ rhetoric aside, it really is all about the kids.