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Making the Grade Part VII: New York City’s Public Schools

July 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, an update on making teachers. Two years ago, we first met a group of new teachers in New York City’s public school system. They’d been recruited from other walks of life to help cope with a severe shortage of certified teachers. John Merrow, our special correspondent for education, returned to PS-25 at the end of this school year to see how they fared. And here is his report.

JOHN MERROW: In the summer of 2000, New York City was desperate.

DEMONSTRATORS: Stop robbing our children.

JOHN MERROW: It was under court order to staff its neediest schools with certified teachers, but it couldn’t find enough veteran teachers who were willing to accept the challenge. Under the leadership of schools Chancellor Harold Levy, the city created a peace corps-like program and invited people from outside teaching to apply.

AROLD LEVY, Chancellor, New York City: The great fear when we started this program was that, a, we wouldn’t get the best and, b, we wouldn’t be able to keep them once the two years were up.

JOHN MERROW: That summer, 320 idealistic but untrained men and women were accepted into the new teaching fellows program. Among them were Dana Goldberg, Renee Cason, Janice Wright, Sarah Costello, and Jack Nastasi. After just six weeks of summer training, they were assigned to Public School 25, a tough K-8 school in Brooklyn with 750 students. We followed them through the highs and lows of their first year on the job.

DANA GOLDBERG: Welcome to second grade. Who’s excited about second grade?

TEACHER: Do you think that people recycle more in Michigan?

STUDENTS: Yes.

STUDENTS: No.

TEACHER: Discuss it in your groups, and I want to hear why.

STUDENTS: No.

JACK NASTASI: I’m trying to learn your names. I’m trying to make it fun. I can ask you each your name and you have to tell me your names. I have a list of your names up there. I’m trying to make it fun.

TEACHER: See how it goes all the way around. It moves one tick every second.

STUDENTS AND RENEE CASON: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16.

DANA GOLDBERG: What did you do? What happened?

STUDENT: I can tell the story.

DANA GOLDBERG: No, it’s not about you. It’s about them. What happened?

JOHN MERROW: In return for a two-year commitment to teaching at an underachieving school, the fellows were enrolled in a master’s degree program with the school system paying the tuition. This June, 272 of the original 320 teaching fellows completed their second year of teaching.

TEACHER: I had a very good year this year. It was different from last year. I almost don’t remember that much about last year now that I’ve had this group for this whole year.

DANA GOLDBERG: I came in the second year definitely a little wiser. Not as naive, not as innocent. Maybe even a little jaded.

TEACHER: When I came back the second year, I made sure not to make the same mistakes I made the first year, laid down the law, made rules that I thought would make the classroom more effective.

JACK NASTASI: Yeah, it was a good year. I mean, I’m still walking and living, so it was a good year.

JOHN MERROW: Renee Cason’s first year had been especially tough.

RENEE CASON: Brett, let go.

RENEE CASON: It was one of the worst years of my life. Last year really, like, immobilized me. I didn’t know if this was going to work. I knew I was going to finish, but I was, like, I don’t know to really control children.

JOHN MERROW: This year, you taught first grade. Last year, you were in fourth grade. How was your year this year?

RENEE CASON: To be honest, it was like a new beginning for me. I had to start all over again.

JOHN MERROW: This year, Renee figured out new ways to keep her students’ attention.

RENEE CASON: This year, I think was successful. I got to see children really improving their reading. All my children moved up a level.

RENEE CASON: Excellent, Martina.

JOHN MERROW: We asked Chancellor Levy to come to P.S.-25 to meet the five teaching fellows.

HAROLD LEVY: If you had to pinpoint one thing that we could do to make the school better or to make your experience better, what would it be?

TEACHER: Well, it would have to be giving the kids an outlet to talk to, because I think that there’s a lot of discipline issues in the school, in any school. And if these kids had somebody they can work it out with on their own time or even on school time, then their discipline issues would kind of go down a little.

TEACHER: You’re very frustrated the first year, feeling like there are all these issues in the schools and several things that just go beyond teachers, for any of the teachers, you know, supplies, funding, social service for these kids, helping them to get through the day, because they need to deal with other issues instead of just coming to school. They have a lot that they come to school with.

HAROLD LEVY: One of the great frustrations for me has been trying to figure out how to get more resources in the school as well. I mean, it’s such a nightmare because every time you make the pitch that there’s not enough money, people say, “oh, $12 million it’s enough.” And, of course, it’s not.

DANA GOLDBERG: I think it’s very important that fellows are with other fellows in their school. We have each other, and quite honestly, if we didn’t, some of us might not be here right now.

HAROLD LEVY: Tell me about the kids. Tell me… have you enjoyed it from that point of view?

DANA GOLDBERG: Absolutely. That’s the best part of the whole job, are the kids.

JACK NASTASI: I can’t get enough of them. Even when I want to leave at 4:00 or 5:00, I end up going to the school yard and playing basketball or doing something.

JOHN MERROW: The teaching fellows program has expanded rapidly. In its second year, it recruited 1,150 fellows; in its third year 16,000 men and women applied and 2,000 have been accepted into the program. But expansion has brought criticism.

JOHN MERROW: What about on-the-job training? There are those people who say that is cruel and unusual punishment for the kids.

HAROLD LEVY: As well as people who say it’s cruel and unusual for teachers. It’s not just on-the-job training. It’s a lot more than that, as you know. It’s getting them early, training them in the best and most rigorous way they can. This is really not an alternative career or an alternative teacher model. What it really is, is a very traditional teacher model, what we’ve just gone after alternative career changers. In other words, we’re giving these people the same thing that teachers who take traditional masters of education get, and the universities that have worked with us have provided a very rigorous program.

JOHN MERROW: But Chancellor Levy, they start teaching in September having had a few weeks of training. Is that fair to the kids?

HAROLD LEVY: I think because we’ve chosen as carefully as we have, I think it winds up being a strong teaching force, and that they are capable of doing it.

JOHN MERROW: The teaching fellows also defend on-the-job training.

JACK NASTASI: We have to. I mean, there’s no other way to learn how to do anything without hands on.

DANA GOLDBERG: We learned a lot more through our experience teaching than actually sitting in a classroom and learning how to teach.

TEACHER: I think that they learned just as much or more than they would have learned with anybody else.

HAROLD LEVY: They’re terrific. They’re so uplifting and they just make you feel like we can do it, we can get through this, and we can make sure that everybody knows how to… every child knows how to read.

TEACHER: Every time you read something, what do I make you do? You do questions?

STUDENT: Book report.

TEACHER: Okay, a book report, or we’re going to…

STUDENT: Write about it.

TEACHER: Write about it.

HAROLD LEVY: My bet, John, was that we could find people who were dedicated to teaching, to doing something that was altruistic beyond just doing it for money. And it’s so clear to me that we found them.

JOHN MERROW: The city may have found them but after getting a free master’s degree and completing their two-year commitment, would they stay? Renee?

RENEE CASON: Well, next year I’m going to be back and I’m going to teach second grade.

JOHN MERROW: Janice?

JANICE WRIGHT: I’ll be teaching fifth grade again next year here in this school, yes.

JACK NASTASI: Same room, same class number. Sixth grade, yeah.

JOHN MERROW: Back for a third year?

JACK NASTASI: Third year.

TEACHER: I’ll be teaching fifth grade again in the same room.

JOHN MERROW: Dana Goldberg will also be teaching next year.

DANA GOLDBERG: Good job guys. Give yourselves a pat on the back.

JOHN MERROW: But in a public school in Chicago.

DANA GOLDBERG: It’s definitely going to be really hard for me, because I’ve had these two years now. And I think it’s going to be really hard for them also.

JOHN MERROW: New York City began the teaching fellows program in desperation. It simply didn’t have enough teachers, and it was willing to gamble that dedicated people could learn to teach on the job. As far as the city is concerned, the gamble has paid off.