TOPICS > Education

Making the Grade Part I: New York City’s Schools

September 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: America’s public schools just opened this school year amidst the biggest teacher shortage in history. The result has been stiff competition nationwide to attract teachers. Special education correspondent John Merrow begins a new series on a way New York City has addressed the problem.

TEACHER: Everything’s overwhelming. I feel like I have a lot of standards to live up to.

TEACHER: I’m not nervous right now, but I’m sure tomorrow morning I’m going to be nervous.

TEACHER: What am I doing?

TEACHER: Well, it’s exciting. There’s a little nervousness also. I would say it’s a combination of both. Tomorrow’s the big day.

JOHN MERROW: Of course Dayna, Scott, Renee, and Jack were nervous on the day before school started; they’re first-year teachers. But they have two more good reasons for being on edge: They’ve been assigned to teach in one of the worst public schools in New York City, and they’ve had only one month of training. Four years ago, the chancellor of the New York City school system identified the 52 worst schools and grouped them into one district.

His idea was to staff them with the city’s best teachers by offering salary bonuses. That strategy did not work. Not enough veteran teachers were willing to sign up. Plan “B” called for recruiting bright professionals looking for a career change, a challenge. 2,300 people applied, and 348 were chosen to be teaching fellows. (Applause)

HAROLD LEVY: I won’t go through the numbers of people, but we have a judge, many journalists, many lawyers, a physician, an ophthalmologist, an acupuncturist, career changers, career starters, career restarters. You name it, we’ve got it, and what a wonderful, wonderful group.

JOHN MERROW: These new teachers will be paid the regular starting salary, $31,500. While they’re teaching, they’ll be working on their master’s degrees. The school system is paying the tuition. The teaching fellows began their training on August 1 at three area universities, including Brooklyn College.

JACK NASTASI: My name is Jack Nastasi. I’m 22 years old. I was planning on going to Wall Street, maybe working for a firm, getting into stocks and bonds, or something. And a couple months ago I went to a graduation for one of my friends, and I just said, “you know, how great it would feel to stand in front and having all these kids speak about how their experiences was with their teachers.” And I would love to be that teacher that someone talks about and says, “you know, this guy made a difference in my life.” I think that would be like the greatest reward possible.

RENEE CASON: My name is Renee Cason, and I’m 22 years old. I was interested in teaching a little bit, back and forth. Education’s my thing. You know, I really want to work with the kids. I have a lot to learn. There’s a lot of experienced teachers who know a lot more than me, and I just have to be willing to embrace whatever criticism they have of me, and not take it internally, but use it.

SCOTT SMITH: My name is Scott Smith, and I’m 46 years old. I’m an associate broker. I am also a lawyer. And fresh out of law school, I did closings for a mortgage bank. I want the students to get something out of being there. I hope that they grow and learn, and I hope it’s a growth experience for me too, in that I think that I will also learn from the students.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: My name is Dayna Goldberg, and I am 23 years old. Everybody in my family is a teacher, everybody. All of the women in my family are teachers, and I was dead set against being a teacher. But then my friend told me about this program. He signed up for it, and asked me to edit his cover letter. I did that. He said, “why don’t you do it? You’re perfect for teaching.” The jobs I do like are always involving kids. So I was like, “hey, why not? I’ll try it.” So I stopped being stubborn, and I realized that teaching is for me and here I am.

JOHN MERROW: Before they could be assigned to classrooms, they had to pass two state exams. Over 90% of the fellows passed, including Jack, Renee, Scott, and Dayna. They were assigned to PSIS 25 in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. It’s a K through 8 school with 750 students, and some of the lowest test scores in New York City. On September 6, the four were getting their rooms ready for the first day of classes.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: This is very exciting to me, putting up paper and putting up boards, and I can’t wait to do my bulletin board. I have everything… I imagine where everything’s going to be. But right now, it’s just a mess. People think we’re going to make a huge difference, and I hope we do. I really hope we do. But it’s something to look up to.

SCOTT SMITH: I’ve heard from several teachers. They advised not smiling. Their concern is that you come across as an authority figure and that if you’re too friendly and the students get the impression that you’re their friend, then you’ll be undermining your own authority. And I don’t want that to happen.

TEACHER: I guess so, yeah. Well, no, no, no. Go over. Do it all the way at the end, and I’ll double it up.

JOHN MERROW: Have you thought about what you’re going to say first?

JACK NASTASI: Good morning, students. My name is Jack Nastasi. You guys have to call me Mr. Nastasi. I’m 22 years old. I just graduated from college. I just decided I wanted to teach, and you got no reason to dislike me; I have no reason to dislike you, so let’s start off on a good point.

RENEE CASON: I’m just going to be me. I mean, I can’t listen to like ten million teachers telling me, “don’t smile. Don’t do this.” I’m just going to be me. I’m just going to be who I am. You know, it’s like trial and error. I’m going to try to be the best at it. Just because I like children and I have a good rapport with them doesn’t mean that I’m going to be a great teacher.

JOHN MERROW: September 7, 2000, the first day of school in New York City. With barely one month of training under their belts, the four rookies went to meet their new students.

RENEE CASON: I don’t see two people. You should be next to someone. How many do we have?

JACK NASTASI: This is your new home for the year. Go inside and select a desk. It’s not going to be your final desk, but just sit down and hold tight. Good morning, everybody. Come on. You can say it a little louder than that. When I say, “good morning,” to you guys, you say, “good morning.” Back to me. All right? Good morning, everybody.

STUDENTS: Good morning.

JACK NASTASI: Don’t be afraid to turn to the person next to you, who is sitting right next to you or the person sitting across from you and next to you, ask them what’s going on, because you guys can learn from each other. I’m going to learn from you. You’re not just learning from me.

JOHN MERROW: After a smooth start, Jack’s day got progressively more difficult.

JACK NASTASI: (talking to students) I’m sorry. You got to say it louder. Octavia? Is that how you say it? Okay. That begins with an “a”? An “O.” So think of a word that with an “o” that describes you. All right. You know what? This is flopping. I’m going to do… I’m going to change this up.

JACK NASTASI: I tried to do it with the adjectives, and I assumed that they knew adjectives better than that, but they really haven’t done adjectives, so they were struggling to think of words up that were adjectives. So before I waited 45 minutes for me to figure out that it wasn’t working, I ended it.

JACK NASTASI: (talking to students) Stop, stop, stop, stop. Stop, stop. I don’t want to hear it. Everybody be quiet! Hands up. Hands up.

JACK NASTASI: I don’t like yelling at little kids. I mean, maybe some people enjoy that. I don’t. But it’s got to be done, so…

DAYNA GOLDBERG: Welcome to second grade. Who’s excited about second grade? I’m excited about second grade. If you want a short-cut name, if your name is Michael and you’d like to be called Mike, then just tell me, okay? Okay.

JOHN MERROW: Like Jack, Dayna used the name game, but with better results.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: Is this what a circle looks like? So I’m going to go first, and my name is Ms. Goldberg, and my favorite animal is a dog. Does anybody have a dog? What kind of dog?

STUDENT: It’s a black one.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: A black dog. What’s the black dog’s name?


DAYNA GOLDBERG: Sheba. I have a dog whose name’s Rowdy. He has one ear up and one ear down. He’s funny looking.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: When they first came in, I was kind of, like, frazzled. I was like, “Okay, what am I going to do? And I kind of wrote myself a script, and I had to look at it. And I’m like, “okay, that’s what I have to do next.” And that was about the only time I kind of felt… When we first got in the room, I’m like, “oh, my God, here’s my class, what do I do now?” But I think after that, everything went smoothly. But it’s only 10:00. So I’ll let you know later.

SCOTT SMITH: So you would like to go into criminal law? You know, just like in medicine, there are certain specialization areas. It’s the same thing in law. There are certain…

JOHN MERROW: Unlike the other new teachers, Scott is team teaching. He managed to get his seventh grade social studies students engaged in discussion.

SCOTT SMITH: Yes? Montay.

STUDENT: I would like to be an architect when I grow up.

SCOTT SMITH: Terrific. Okay. What do you like about that?

STUDENT: I chose that because you can, like, design your own houses, like how you want an area to be.

SCOTT SMITH: You want to do something different?

STUDENT: Well, yeah, different from usual houses, something like that.

SCOTT SMITH: Right, right. Terrific. That’s a great idea.

SCOTT SMITH: There were really some good things that happened. I mean, a lot of the students brought notebooks. They brought loose-leaf binders. They were prepared. They had pens or pencils. They had supplies. They were organized. And, I mean, I thought that part of it was great.

SCOTT SMITH: (talking to students) Yes? Yes?

STUDENT: I want to be a translator.

SCOTT SMITH: (talking to students) Translator. Wow.

SCOTT SMITH: I’m feeling okay. I’m still a little nervous. We’re waiting for textbooks. We have some older textbooks that we can use for now that we found, but my co-teacher and I need to sit down and do more preparation.

RENEE CASON: Excuse me, you are not in line. Can you please get in line? Thank you.

JOHN MERROW: Most of Renee’s fourth graders are boys. A few of them proved to be difficult to control.

RENEE CASON: Two lines. You seem to be lost, like you’re not with us here. Two lines. This way. You should be facing that way. Good morning.

STUDENTS: Good morning.

RENEE CASON: My name is Miss Cason.

JOHN MERROW: Most of her morning was taken up with instructing the students on how to write their names and addresses, as well as frequent disciplining.

RENEE CASON: You see like this? I want you to put your name across. I cannot hear anything while I’ll working with someone else. It’s just like I had to go over these rules, and it was really surprising to see that they didn’t know how to spell their own address.

RENEE CASON: (talking to students) Put your finished card to the left of your desk. So it should go to the left.

JOHN MERROW: Renee’s class became more and more restless as the day went on.

RENEE CASON: There is no talking right now. There is no talking right now. There is no talking right now.

JOHN MERROW: At the end of their first day, the teaching fellows compared experiences.

RENEE CASON: I have like this one little boy. That’s why I know his name so well, because he just tries my nerves. And this other teacher was saying that he just… He just will try you, and he just won’t listen.

JACK NASTASI: I’m like, I thought I lost them for a minute, so lunchtime. It was just like a bad point. And at that point I was like I had it up to here. I was sick of yelling at them. I didn’t want to yell at them anymore.

SCOTT SMITH: There was one student who kept leaning back in his chair, and I kept asking him not to do it, and he continued doing it anyway. But then later in the day, I kind of took him aside and spoke with him individually, and I think that it had an effect. And I think actually that private conversation turned into one of the best moments of the day.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: The best thing I did today was probably journal writing about themselves. They love talking about themselves. I told them… I asked them all these questions, like what’s your favorite music, what’s your favorite food.

RENEE CASON: I just think, like, when I was giving out the points, they were really happy. And then when I was picking them up from lunch, this girl was all happy to see me. It was cool.

DAYNA GOLDBERG: I’m just mental and physically drained from the last two months. Between the fellowship and all that, you know, rigorous training, and 12-hour days, to this. It’s like, when’s Thanksgiving?

JOHN MERROW: The next morning all four arrived early, ready for the challenges ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Correspondent John Merrow will return periodically to New York public school number 25 during this school year, and will update us on the progress of these four new teachers.