Making the Grade Part VI: New York City Schools
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JOHN MERROW: July 31, 2000, 323 men and women who had never taught before accepted a challenge: Become teachers in some of New York City’s toughest public schools. And after only one month of training, they did.
Twelve of these so-called teaching fellows were assigned to PS-25 in Brooklyn. It’s a K-8 school with 350 students. It’s also one of the city’s lowest-performing, highest-need schools. The attitudes and feelings of the teaching fellows changed as the year passed. Dayna Goldberg taught second grade.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: (August 21, 2000) My hope is to make a difference. If I could get one child to improve from start to finish, then I’ve achieved my goal.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: (June 8, 2001) I came in here with this bright-eyed idea that I’m going to change the world, and quickly I realized that I can’t change the world.
JOHN MERROW: Renee Cason taught fourth grade.
RENEE CASON: (September 8, 2000) I’m an idealist, and I always want to change things. Like, okay, these kids don’t learn? Let’s see what we can do. Let’s make it interesting for them.
RENEE CASON: (June 25, 2001) Not to be negative, but this year, I don’t see that much. Maybe I’m clouded, but this has not been a positive experience for me. It’s been a growing experience where I’ve had to grow up and see what reality is about. And yes, I tried out teaching, and it doesn’t look like this is something I really want to stay with.
JACK NASTASI: You can find the answers for the questions on the first page.
JOHN MERROW: Jack Nastasi taught sixth grade.
JACK NASTASI: (August 21, 2000) 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.
JACK NASTASI: (June 25, 2001) Certain things surprised me — just particular instances. But it’s not like I came in with this mask on that I had no clue what it was like in a public school, you know? I didn’t have all these illusions. I didn’t have them.
JOHN MERROW: Of the original 323 teaching fellows, about 40 left the program, including Megan Sutherland, who left PS-25 to write for a magazine. Public schools in New York City remained opened until June 27, and as the year wound down, the rookie teachers faced the challenge of trying to hold their students’ attention.
SARAH COSTELLOE: Hey, yo!
JOHN MERROW: Renee Cason took her fourth-graders on a field trip to the zoo.
RENEE CASON: All right, we’re ready. We’re ready, let’s go.
JOHN MERROW: Students in Janice Wright’s and Sarah Costelloe’s fifth-grade classes created newspapers.
JANICE WRIGHT: I corrected your TV review, okay?
JOHN MERROW: And Jack Nastasi entertained his sixth-graders with what he called modern day fables.
JACK NASTASI: What if when the kid was growing up, his daddy always drink a lot of beer?
STUDENTS: …to the flag of the United States of America.
JOHN MERROW: The last week of school was a time for parties and award ceremonies, including prizes for those who have done well on the city and state math and reading tests.
TEACHER: …for your achievement in the reading test.
TEACHER: The only one who scored a four in the reading test.
JOHN MERROW: PS-25 had devoted a great deal of energy to the standardized tests, suspending instruction in Spanish, music, art, and phys ed. For one month in order to practice for the math and reading tests. In the end, however, only 43 percent passed the math exams. Reading scores did improve. Sixty-six percent passed, and that was cause for celebration.
JIM FLANNERY: If you’re in three, five, six, or seven, and you received a three or a four in reading, you got a shot at winning one of the bikes. Pick one. Call your mom, tell her you won, and as soon as we can make arrangements for her to come up, you guys are all set. Congratulations. Now you’ve got to get a helmet, you know.
STUDENT: I know.
JOHN MERROW: However, the results were not good enough to get PS-25 off the state’s list of low-performing schools, as principal Leroy Johnson acknowledged.
LEROY JOHNSON: It’s focusing on the areas where kids need to improve, particularly in the skill areas of mathematic computation, number theory, algebra, patterns. We need to look at that and look at the data from this past year’s test and use that information to inform our instructional practice next year.
JOHN MERROW: At year’s end with sat with Jack, Renee, Dayna, Sarah and Janice.
JOHN MERROW: At the beginning of this project, you all had… I want to say romantic sense of teaching. Things have changed.
JANICE WRIGHT: I thought that if I was able to just forge relationships with these children, then I’d be able to teach them anything. But there’s so much more outside of that that you need to be able to do. But still, at the core of it, after all is said and done, with the paperwork and the administration, you still have to build the relationship with the child to teach them.
JOHN MERROW: How about for you, Renee? What are you feeling?
RENEE CASON: I’m happy it’s over.
JOHN MERROW: Tell me more.
RENEE CASON: It’s been hell, and I’m glad it’s over.
SARAH COSTELLOE: The hardest thing for me was figuring out how to balance the emotional impact of it. I mean, we’ve all struggled with the emotional side of going home with things. It doesn’t just stay in the classroom. You know, the problems that these kids face are very real, and they go home with you as well. It took over, I think, a lot of our lives for a while.
We finally figured out how to balance it, where you…. It’s not like we’re ignoring it, but I’m able to balance that better with my own life and with my job here as a teacher, as opposed to a mother, you know, counselor, sister-type figure. I mean constantly, that has been the hardest thing for me, but I think I’ve finally figured it out.
JOHN MERROW: Are you surprised you made it in any way?
JACK NASTASI: No.
JOHN MERROW: You knew you were going to make it?
JACK NASTASI: Yeah, sure.
JOHN MERROW: Yeah, sure.
JACK NASTASI: I wasn’t… I wasn’t going to… I don’t know. I never looked at this like, “will I make it?” I never, like… I didn’t sign on to try and make it, like. I figured when I started, I was definitely going to finish it. There was never any question in my head if I would make it or not.
JOHN MERROW: Any advice for Harold Levy, the New York City school chancellor, the man who set up the program? How should it be done differently?
DAYNA GOLDBERG: Come visit unannounced.
JOHN MERROW: Come visit unannounced?
DAYNA GOLDBERG: Unannounced, because if they know that he’s coming, they’re going to paint the walls and paint everything over, and this guy is coming and he’s important and be good. And that’s the kind of announcements we get.
JOHN MERROW: Unannounced visits. And Sarah?
SARAH COSTELLOE: I think he also needs to get feedback from the fellows, because he put us out here to be the eyes and the ears, and think out of the box. But it does us no good if you have 300-something people in the classroom, if you’re not going to ask what their experience was, how it worked, what didn’t work, what should be different. I mean, it does us no good to be in here.
Like, I feel like we’re filling spots if he doesn’t want to hear what we went through this year. And you try to communicate with him, and there’s no way to do it.
JOHN MERROW: What’s it feel like? You know, school is over, basically. What are you feeling?
DAYNA GOLDBERG: There’s a lot of mix of emotions, and it’s… you don’t know how to feel. It’s relief that we made it through. Finally we have some time for ourselves. It’s sadness because we’re leaving these kids.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: You could say something if you raise your hand, and I call on you.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: It’s happiness because I can’t imagine waking up for… I don’t know what I would have to do if I had to do this for another month. But at the same time, you know, I don’t know what I’m going to do not doing it.
JANICE WRIGHT: I’m sad. I didn’t think it would be sad, but now I’m sad. I’ll probably miss them over the summer, the kids.
JOHN MERROW: You had the toughest year.
RENEE CASON: I’m trying to finish. I want to finish my two-year commitment.
JOHN MERROW: Do you want to be here?
RENEE CASON: Not particularly. I’m not particularly going to miss any children. Some of them I like more than the rest, but…
RENEE CASON: Joanna and Charmay, enough!
RENEE CASON: Maybe I just need to try this out, to see that maybe children are just not human beings I want to be around right now.
JOHN MERROW: Principal Leroy Johnson and assistant principal Jim Flannery provided thumbnail sketches of the five teaching fellows, beginning with Dayna Goldberg.
LEROY JOHNSON: Superb. I think she really caught on to what she had to do.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: Oh, my goodness. You are the smartest second- grade class in this whole school.
JIM FLANNERY: She absolutely amazes me. She walked in here and she possesses the skills that you would expect from a teacher that maybe had four or five years’ experience. She’s got a passion for teaching, that woman.
JOHN MERROW: Sarah Costelloe.
LEROY JOHNSON: Breath of fresh air. She’s always bright-eyed, always eager. She’s young. She’s vibrant. She’s intelligent. She’s done some really remarkable stuff with writing with her classes. They put together a magazine, a newspaper. She is always publishing students’ work, all the time in the classroom.
JOHN MERROW: Jack Nastasi.
JIM FLANNERY: He’s got a fantastic rapport with the children. He’s brutally honest, and that’s refreshing.
LEROY JOHNSON: I’m really proud of his accomplishments. There are times when you talk to Mr. Nastasi and he’s like, I don’t know, guys, but he hung in there and he really overcame a lot of obstacles, and he made a difference.
JOHN MERROW: Janice Wright.
LEROY JOHNSON: A smart teacher. A prepared teacher.
JIM FLANNERY: She had a little incident last year.
JOHN MERROW: She broke up a fight; got hit herself.
JIM FLANNERY: And she was more concerned for the child. That says a lot about a person.
JOHN MERROW: Renee Cason.
LEROY JOHNSON: She has brought a lot of good to this school. And she wasn’t a teacher who came into the classroom and sat down and read a newspaper all day and let the kids run around in circles. So it’s just a matter of her recognizing and really building her own esteem to do this kind of work.
JIM FLANNERY: She has trouble with class control. And for a new person who walks into a room and loses a little bit of that control in September, it does get progressively worse. I think if she walked into that same class next September, 99 percent of those problems would go away.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: Is this what a circle looks like?
JOHN MERROW: Beginning teachers receive one of three ratings: Satisfactory, doubtful, or unsatisfactory. All five teaching fellows received satisfactory ratings, and have been offered positions for the fall.
JOHN MERROW: Would you like to have more teaching fellows?
LEROY JOHNSON: I would. I would. I absolutely would.
JIM FLANNERY: That’s what we need in education. We need people that are dedicated and that have a passion to teach kids.
JANICE WRIGHT: Who did this? Carlita?
JOHN MERROW: And then it was time to say good-bye. It must be tough to have been with you for the whole year.
JANICE WRIGHT: Yeah, they’re my first class. I’m probably a little more attached.
JOHN MERROW: You going to be back in September?
JANICE WRIGHT: Yes, I will.
JACK NASTASI: I just said good-bye. You know, I’m going to miss them, but I’ll see them again.
JOHN MERROW: You’ll be back in September?
JACK NASTASI: Yeah, I’m going to be back.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: For me it’s very emotional, because it’s been such a rough year.
JOHN MERROW: Will you be back in September?
DAYNA GOLDBERG: Absolutely. No question.
RENEE CASON: Well, I’m glad we’re all mutually happy to go.
STUDENT: Yeah, you too.
JOHN MERROW: Will you be back in September?
RENEE CASON: Yeah. I’m going to… I’ll be back.
JOHN MERROW: You’re coming back?
RENEE CASON: I will be back.
SARAH COSTELLOE: Very sad. Very sad.
JOHN MERROW: You have a big smile on your face.
SARAH COSTELLOE: I know, because I’m proud of them.
JOHN MERROW: Will you be back in September?
SARAH COSTELLOE: I’ll be here. Same room.