Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic

Education, at its most engaging, is performance art. From the moment a teacher steps into the classroom, students look to him or her to set the tone and course of study for everyone, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic students. Even teachers who have moved away from the traditional lecture format, toward more learner autonomy-supportive approaches such as project-based and peer-to-peer learning, still need to engage students in the process, and serve as a vital conduit between learner and subject matter.

Teachers are seldom trained in the performance aspect of teaching, however, and given that every American classroom contains at least one bored, reluctant, or frustrated student, engagement through performance may just be the most important skill in a teacher’s bag of tricks.

I asked Teller, a former Latin teacher and the silent half of the magical partnership known as Penn & Teller, about his years as an educator, and the role performance played in his teaching. Teller taught high school Latin for six years before he left to pursue a career in magic with Penn, and in the forty years since, the duo have won Emmys, Obies, and Writer’s Guild Awards, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As our conversation meandered through Catullus, Vergil, Shakespeare, and education theory, he explained why he believes performance is an essential, elemental aspect of effective teaching.

The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.

As that symbol, Teller argued, the teacher has a duty to engage, to create romance that can transform apathy into interest, and, if a teacher does her job well, a sort of transference of enthusiasm from teacher to student takes place. The best teachers, Teller contended, find a way to teach content while keeping students interested. “If you don’t have both astonishment and content, you have either a technical exercise or you have a lecture.” Teller’s educational philosophy is rooted in the philosopher A.N. Whitehead’s “rhythm of education,” a theory that asserts learning happens in three stages: romance, precision, and generalization.

The magicians and entertainers Penn & Teller (Francis George)

Romance, argued Teller, precedes all else. “I’m 5’8” and was about 160 pounds those days, so I was not the kind of person who could walk into a room of rowdy kids and [they] would just pay attention to me. What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.”

In pursuit of that romance, Teller’s first order of business in his classroom at Lawrence High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, was to throw away the curriculum and text and create his own. “I taught [Latin] with a set of Latin readers I composed myself, complete with illustrations, called Lingua Latina Pictorius.”

I did my best to hide my glee, calmly replying that I’d really like to see a few pages, if he still had them. This was, of course, a gross understatement; I was dying to see the books. Teller wouldn’t make any promises, as the books were in storage somewhere, but a few hours later, scanned excerpts from his readers appeared in my inbox.

Teller’s Latin curriculum

He paired his handmade books with supplemental readings, also selected for their potential to engage his students. He chose Book Two of The Aeneid, because it contained the story of the Trojan Horse, and selections from the poetry of Catullus. “Not the absolutely pornographic stuff like, pedicabo et irrumabo, which is that very, very naughty poem, but material I liked and could get excited about. Everything had either humor or sex or blood or romance in it, because that’s what you’re thinking about when you’re in middle and high school.”

Once a teacher has sparked romance in students, Teller argued, the rest can follow. It’s easy to disregard the entertainment of your students as pandering, but it’s not, Teller stressed, citing Frances Ferguson’s The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective. “In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that’s strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.”

Teller’s Latin curriculum

Some subjects can’t be taught without the showbiz, Teller asserted. Teaching Shakespeare as a text, before students have a seen a production, is the surest route to kill off any enthusiasm for The Bard. Students must watch Shakespeare before they read it, he said. “Until you’ve seen what the idea [of Shakespeare’s work] is, it’s really like handing a child an orchestral score and saying, ‘Imagine this music.’ Well, you can’t; you have to be Mozart to do that.”

And if Shakespeare (or Catullus or Vergil) makes students uncomfortable? That’s a good thing, Teller said. Learning, like magic, should make people uncomfortable, because neither are passive acts. Elaborating on the analogy, he continued, “Magic doesn’t wash over you like a gentle, reassuring lullaby. In magic, what you see comes into conflict with what you know, and that discomfort creates a kind of energy and a spark that is extremely exciting. That level of participation that magic brings from you by making you uncomfortable is a very good thing.”

As we were on the subject of discomfort I asked Teller what he thinks of schools’ efforts to protect students from discomfort as they learn through censoring teachers’ content and requirements for trigger warnings. For the first time in our conversation, Teller illustrated the power of his trademark silence, and the line went quiet.

Just as I’d begun to think we’d been disconnected, he replied,

When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.

The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids, Cont’d

Erika Christakis (yep, the same woman at the center of the Yale Halloween controversy) has a piece for us in the current issue about how preschool kids are increasingly “working more but learning less.” A reader absorbs her core lessons:

Children don’t just magically become ready to learn reading skills because it’s the first of September closest to four years after their birth, yet somehow we’re trying to build a school system that assumes this. This is little short of abusive.

The Finnish teacher quoted at the end has it right: Read to children; converse with them; immerse them in language and narrative; and expose them to the reality that we have a symbolic mechanism for recording language without insisting that they master it. And by the time they are 5 or 6 or 7 or 8, they’ll be ready to read, and when that happens, for most, it will happen pretty easily and quickly.

Another reader makes a point not really addressed by Christakis:

My wife teaches preschool, and she fights this all the time. She says the parents are part of the problem; some of them ask for homework for their three and four year olds. She instead tells the parents to read to them and make sure the kids get lots of playtime.

More on playtime from “a board president of my kids’ coop preschool a few years back”:

I once naively suggested to the senior teacher that maybe we should have more academics—reading and math. I wanted my kids to have a head start in kindergarten. She said: “At this level, play IS academic.”

She explained that the adult attributes we call “character” are life skills acquired early, beginning in preschool. These include perseverance, determination, honesty, follow-through, self-respect, leadership, listening skills—even creativity and charisma. Kids with these skills, she said, have no problem with academics later.

This reader recommends a more specific school of thought:

“Two front teeth = ready to read” is the standard used in Waldorf Schools. There’s something to be said for it, because those schools do extensive reading to kids and get them to draw and discuss concepts (such as rhyming, plot, motivation, cause and effect, contextual clues, etc.—not just factual content). However, they do not explicitly teach students how to read until the end of first grade or the start of second grade. And almost all Waldorf students read and comprehend their reading above third grade level when tested in third grade.

The fact that a Waldorf teacher stays with a class from K to 3rd, or even K to 5th, means that teachers develop strong relationships and deep knowledge of their students. And that allows teachers to diagnose and provide or recommend tutoring or special interventions for those with print-based disabilities so that when their nervous system is sufficiently mature, they too will learn to read.

Another overview of Waldorf:

This reader went another direction:

I was homeschooled until I was seven, and I honestly think that it was one of the best choices my parents ever made. By the time I started school (third grade), I was enamored of learning. Our homeschool was always rather loosely structured, and I actually enjoyed many of my lessons so much that I would do more than was “assigned.”

I only spent a couple hours a day on formal lessons (and we skipped more than a few days, whenever the school district had a holiday or my mom wasn’t feeling up to it) and I had many hours to read and play with my siblings. Everyone in my family loved to read, so it was just natural for me to want to do it to.

Anyway, maybe some of that is just due to some innate level of nerdiness on my part, but I do think the lack of structure + encouragement of curiosity in my formative years was helpful. (On the other hand, I can’t cut or glue to save my life! Missing out on those kindergarten skills …)

If you’re interested in more of Christakis’s work, she’s the author of the new book The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.

Why Are There So Few Black Children in Gifted Programs?

It’s a reality that’s rattled the education world for years: Black and Latino students are far less likely than their white and Asian peers to be assigned to gifted-and-talented programs. The odds of getting assigned to such programs are 66 percent lower for black students and 47 percent lower for Latino students than they are for their white counterparts.

Given the well-known racial disparities in academic test scores that generally determine enrollment in these programs, the gap may seem inevitable. But even among students with high scores on math and reading assessments, black children are severely underrepresented in gifted programs; a high-achieving white student is twice as likely as an equally high-achieving black student to get assigned to such a program. (Interestingly, the gap between Latino and white students virtually disappears when controlling for test scores and other classroom and socioeconomic variables.) According to a new study by Jason Grissom, an education-policy professor at Vanderbilt University, and Chris Redding, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy at Vanderbilt, this suggests that “factors beyond observable student background characteristics are responsible for explaining the Black-White gap in gifted assignment.”

The study, which was published Tuesday in the American Educational Research Association’s peer-reviewed journal, looks at a nationally representative group of more than 10,000 students who started kindergarten in 1998, tracking them every few years throughout elementary school. Controlling for a range of variables—from students’ academic performance to their socioeconomic status to their age—it aims to provide new insight into why high-performing black students are so underrepresented in gifted-and-talented programs. It turns out that the characteristics and tendencies of teachers, according to the study, could be major factors. Black students are three times less likely to be assigned to gifted-and-talented reading courses when those students are taught by non-black teachers versus black ones, the study finds. The authors argue that preventable practices and implicit biases likely contribute to this discrepancy.

In recent years, teachers have been given greater discretion in whom to refer to gifted-and-talented classes. The researchers have warned against drawing the conclusion that non-black teachers are biased against black students, and their study isn’t definitive about what’s causing the underrepresentation. They do, however, cite a number of hypotheses, including that “racialized teacher perceptions” may in part explain why educators interpret their students’ behaviors and abilities in inconsistent ways. “What a teacher may attribute to precocity for one student may be considered disruptive behavior for another,” they write. Conversely, teachers of color may recommend minority students for gifted education at higher rates. Or black teachers may simply be more effective in both motivating black students to improve their own performance and engaging with parents, who are often instrumental in getting their children screened for and enrolled in gifted-and-talented instruction.

The findings are concerning given how few classrooms are staffed with teachers of color, a problem schools have failed to address despite the increasing racial diversity of America’s schoolchildren. In fact, as The Atlantic’s Adrienne Green reported last September, a study of nine major U.S. cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia found that the disparity between teachers and students of color actually increased in each of the districts between 2002 and 2012. Overall, roughly 80 percent of U.S. public-school teachers are white, and, according to the study, roughly the same percentage of black elementary-school children are taught by teachers of another race. (The vast majority of the teachers studied by the Vanderbilt researchers—91 percent—are white.) “Greater teacher diversity may help ameliorate racial gaps in student assignment to gifted programs,” Grissom and Redding write.

Still, the researchers, who caution against attributing the gaps strictly to teacher bias, conclude that the gifted-and-talented imbalance can be addressed even without diversifying the teaching force. Schools, they suggest, can improve training for teachers tasked with identifying gifted students, explicitly encourage them to address tacit biases, raise awareness about prejudices or stereotypes that lead to inconsistent practices, or adopt universal screening for gifted children. Or all of the above.

Ultimately, the racial disparities in gifted education can widen longer-term gaps in opportunity. Participation in gifted-and-talented programs has been linked with positive future outcomes, including improved academic performance, motivation, and classroom engagement. “The lower likelihood of assignment for high-achieving Black students in classrooms with non-Black teachers,” the researchers write, “diverts gifted services from the very students who may benefit the most from such programs.”

Teaching MLK’s Life—The Man, Not the Myth

A year after leading thousands of protesters in the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march, Martin Luther King Jr. brought his campaign to end racial discrimination to Chicago. Rather than voting rights, the target was housing inequity in a city known in 1966—and even today—as the most racially segregated in the nation. King moved his family into a dilapidated apartment on Chicago’s West Side, launching the Chicago Freedom Movement and bringing national attention to the fight for better housing, better schools, and better jobs for blacks in the North.

Now 50 years later, seventh- and eighth-graders at Seward Academy on Chicago’s South Side study King and the very issue that brought him to their city. The Chicago teacher Gregory Michie says his lessons on the social-justice icon are designed to upend what he views as a simplistic and clichéd image often presented in schools. Since many of his students know King’s famous excerpt hoping for a day when no one is judged by the color of their skin, Michie’s social-studies class zeroes in on lesser-known sections of the “I Have a Dream” speech, like the “fierce urgency of now” and “tranquilizing drug of [white] gradualism.” The youngsters quickly realize that they’ve never really heard the full message of the speech, he said, and “it’s a lot more nuanced, and more fiery, than they’d thought.”

As the country observes the federal holiday named in King’s honor, it seems that schools are increasingly coming under sharp criticism from educators and activists for their approach to teaching King’s life. Some question a sanitized teaching of the black civil-rights movement, its leaders, and other struggles for social justice that denies students an accurate and complete account of history. These debates are complicated by the inherent professional dangers in teaching through a social-justice lens.

In her book Language, Culture, and Teaching, the multicultural educator and author Sonia Nieto writes that schools in attempting to make King “palatable to the mainstream … have made [him] a milquetoast.” Nieto notes that it is rare for teachers to explore King’s “consistent opposition to the Vietnam War [and rebuke] of unbridled capitalism,” ignoring the breadth of his protests. What’s more, this tendency to romanticize history and heroism impairs Americans’ ability to confront racial injustices today, says the social-justice activist Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Everybody gets to celebrate the march on Washington, everybody gets to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King,” Stevenson told the nonprofit news organization The Marshall Project last year, and “no one is accountable for all of the resistance to civil rights, all of the damage that was done by segregation.”

When it comes to King and the treatment of social justice in classrooms, textbooks and materials are frequently lacking, with important parts of history sandwiched into commemorative months for racial and ethnic groups—Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month, for example. This and other factors make it nearly impossible for students to grapple with and think critically about King the man, not the myth, says Greg E. Carr, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. “King warned us about the threats of racism, materialism, and militarism. This country doesn’t want to hear that,” Carr asserts. Instead, King is presented as a one-dimensional champion of racial unity, he said, and the better part of his words and actions are edited out “to make him fit that surreal representation.”

Social-justice teaching has its philosophical roots in educating students for a more just and equitable world. Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice describes classrooms “where students and teachers gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality.”

The best way for teachers to educate students on King is to let him and his colleagues speak for themselves, Carr says. The civil-rights movement coincided with the rapid growth of televisions in American homes. In 1950, 9 percent of U.S. households had a television set; by 1960, TV ownership had increased almost tenfold to 87 percent. For educators, this translates into a treasure trove of primary sources for students, with “hours and hours of [King’s] speeches, statements, and actions … to get a sense of the fullness of his ideas.” Among Carr’s favorites are the Pacifica Radio Archives and the 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis with original footage of civil rights actions. Carr also relies on Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project—seven volumes of letters, speeches, church sermons, and published and unpublished writings. “The best way to teach King is to [study] the black people who produced him, who surrounded him, who continued his work.”

Teaching for social justice also shows a positive correlation with student outcomes. A 2009 research review published in the journal Equity & Excellence in Education found a measurable impact on academic achievement, class participation, and attitudes about learning among racially and linguistically marginalized populations. And a study released last week by Iowa State University finds the benefits of social-justice education hold true for affluent, white students as well.

Still, even with these academic gains, social-justice lessons can be a risky proposition, leaving teachers vulnerable to accusations of political correctness and politicizing the classroom. In a recent case that gained some notoriety, a high-school teacher in New York City claims she was fired for teaching a lesson on the Central Park Five, who were wrongfully convicted and jailed for the 1986 rape of a Central Park jogger; administrators allegedly warned her this content would “rile up” black students.

“When teachers commit to addressing social justice issues within the classroom, particularly issues that adversely affect blacks and Latinos, the stakes are so much higher,” explains Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, a seventh-grade teacher in Hackensack Public Schools in New Jersey and founder of the #SoJustEdu Twitter chat, created to bring a more heightened awareness to the importance of social-justice education. She attributes the opposition to school leaders who are uncomfortable with disrupting the status quo by arming students with the knowledge and tools to affect change from those in positions of power. “Covering up and co-opting Dr. King’s message muddies the examples our children need to see. Stories of resistance are empowering and liberating,” she says.

Aryee-Price concedes that the consequences for social-justice teaching—from being fired and harassed, to being marginalized and labeled a troublemaker—are real, yet encourages her peers not to give up. “The very act of teaching in public schools is an act of social justice … it is the responsibility of social-justice [teachers] to dissent and demand better.”

Carr, the Howard professor, echoes this opinion. “The classroom is a political space,” he states, noting that it’s critical for teachers to devote themselves to developing students’ ability to think independently. In the era of Black Lives Matter and a resurgence of movement activism, he and other educators uniformly agree helping students connect present-day events to prior resistance struggles can only deepen and grow understanding.

Back in Chicago, Michie used one of Dr. King’s quotes, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” last year in a unit on the Ferguson protests to help his middle-schoolers make sense of what was happening—and as a counterpoint to those who simply labeled the protesters as violent or “thugs.”

“Learning about the history of lynching and racist housing policies are honoring King’s legacy,” Michie says. “We forget—or never learn—all of the painful history that made his efforts necessary.”

Humanizing the Humanities

Early in my undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, I signed up for a French theater course. I remember waiting in the auditorium with the rest of the class, a large one by the standards of our small liberal-arts school. It was a few minutes past the scheduled starting time, and everyone scanned the room looking for the professor.

Suddenly the lights dimmed and a booming voice emerged from the back of the room, growing louder while reciting a passage from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, the classic French rewriting of Sophocles. Clad in a black cape, our professor, then in his 70s, nimbly climbed over seats and acted out the scene in the aisles, inviting giggling students to stand and become players in the unfolding scene. Finally this man, already larger than life, swept up to the stage at the front of the room and drew back his cape, delivering a breathless “Bienvenue au théâtre!” to his newly found apprentices. We broke out into applause, laughing and stunned in equal measure. This would be no ordinary French class. In John Rassias’s classroom, language was an experience of the mind and body, meant to be lived and breathed.

Welcome to the theater. With those words Professor John Rassias cracked open a world of possibility for me, as he had with countless others. For John, the art of language was not an end unto itself, but a beginning, a gateway to people and culture.

News of John’s death on December 2nd, at age 90, was not unexpected to those who knew him. But nevertheless, it left a hollowness. That stage would never be quite the same again.

The ensuing outpouring and tributes from alumni and colleagues from around the world is a testament to John’s enduring legacy, and to the way he conceived of education itself. While he is best known for the Rassias method, the immersive and relentlessly interactive approach to language acquisition that he sought to bring to schools and organizations around the world, curiosity and engagement were his primary tools of pedagogy. Learning was worth it for its own sake, and teaching was edifying in its own right.

Everything had the possibility of being a teachable moment to John, and when he wasn’t going around play-acting, he was asking questions, peppering students and colleagues alike on topics for papers and presentations, giving encouragement to work or study abroad (“There is a whole world out there!”) and constantly asking “why?” “Why would the character in the scene act that way? What is he really saying about that moment? What does that have to do with the human condition, my dear?” He answered questions with queries, adamant that students claim an intellectual independence for themselves. The approach was hands on, but the expectation was hands-off. Your education was yours to undertake, yours to own, yours to interrogate and define.

John’s literal staging of open-ended questions, and his predilection for French theater and for tragedy in particular, made intuitive sense. The Greek tragedy played to John’s deepest heart, as he remained proudly and inextricably Greek in identity throughout his life, even if parts of his personality were in turn distinctly American and French. Language acquisition was for him a means by which to evolve and expand the self and one’s concept of the world. The intertwining of French literature with Greek classics provided a unique framework, a vehicle by which to share with his students the elements of his life that had made him the soul that he was.

Rassias demonstrates the Rassias method to a group of teachers. Joseph Mehling / Dartmouth College

The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in New Hampshire and had served in the Marines during World War II, landing on Okinawa in 1945. He moved to France to complete his doctorate and study theater thereafter, followed by a long relationship with the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire, and a career in university teaching. Antigone, like so many French plays of the 20th century, posed veiled commentaries on the war raging on France’s soil at the time, drawn from timeless tales recalling both man’s capacity for unfathomable destruction and for perpetual renewal. Through theater, he encouraged us to unpack a history to which we were the heirs.

John spoke little of his time in the military, but one does not face war unchanged. I always viewed his love of theater as a kind of catharsis, as a way of playing out the past and setting it free. John took the experience of war, in essence untranslatable to those who have not lived it, and created a life built on fostering bridges, communication, and human connection. To read tragedy with him was to witness someone have full acceptance of the deepest darkness of the human soul and, like Antigone, seek to defy the darkness by pursuing one’s higher good—to bury the past not to forget it, but to plant a seed for the future.

His large and imposing hands were always moving, always grasping at the air, or reaching out to greet the hand of an old or newly made friend. I spent many office hours watching those hands wave about as he told stories from the Peace Corps, sung a Greek folk song, or took a step out to hug a visitor (someone was always waiting at the door). This was a man who was above all unafraid to be human, to celebrate and discuss and at times curse about what made us all the same, and what made us different, throwing protocol to the wind—the messiness of authenticity. Language and literature were a means by which to question the boundaries of where one person or entity stops and another begins, of what makes us who we are. When a student stumbled on a French term, rather than condescend, he would correct with a celebration of the fact that mistakes meant effort, and moving beyond one’s comfort zone. In an educational culture that often pushed students to perfection, he taught resilience and pride in coloring outside the lines.

I am a third-generation educator, but it was through the gentle (and at times not so gentle) push to inquiry, searching, and discovery during my undergraduate years that I found my own passion for learning, and grew to fully appreciate the transformative power of a good teacher. An impassioned teacher loves her subject matter and transmits that enthusiasm, inviting students to find their own passion, their own gifts. Not everyone who encounters a language class will love it and go on to pursue graduate studies as I did. But hopefully students exposed to languages in particular and to the humanities in general, embattled as these academic fields are in the country’s current public discourse, may find themselves delving into a dimension of the shared human experience they had never considered before, if even for a single class. And for that, we are all better off.

I think of the importance of educators like John in the current climate, as the U.S. educational system faces profound challenges and its politics are increasingly debated in absolutes, absent shades of gray. As a culture, the country has come to place decreasing value on thoughtfulness, abstraction, and nuanced critical thinking that poses big (uncomfortable) questions rather than presuming answers. Those charged with overseeing learning often want “outcomes” rather than process, even if those outcomes are temporary, even if the picture they paint is incomplete. The labor of teaching—that hands-on, dynamic and most valuable of endeavors—is often shortchanged and even derided. The youngest of children are besieged by academic expectations rather than exploration early in life, and the nation’s college students and even the (often adjunct) faculty that teach them find themselves anxious about financial stability and the viability of higher education.

The humanities and the “soft” skills these disciplines foster are pitted against the sciences when in fact they are a part of an ecosystem of knowledge, a balance in ways of thinking and seeing. There is value in debating the ethics of King Creon’s refusal to allow Antigone to bury her brother in Antigone, just as there is worth in delving into the mysteries of atoms. While society at large requires more “education,” to advance, it has failed to see that it comes in many forms, arguably narrowing its meaning and application. Though educators are no less dedicated today than they were yesterday, the landscape of education, how we conceive of education itself, has changed, frequently eschewing the open inquiry and development of the individual with an eye toward the collective that was once the crux of higher education. With the loss of John, I mourn a beloved mentor and colleague, but also at what he represented: the humanizing potential of the humanities, of the intrinsic worth of the expansion of knowledge to the human condition, of its contribution to society.


The last time I saw John just over a year ago, he had changed. His body was frail, his mind was not as sharp as it once was, and he depended heavily on his daughter Helene, who now carries on his language teaching vocation through the Rassias Center, to get from place to place. I walked up to greet him, this time as a peer, and smiled. A burst of recognition twinkled in his eyes, and he opened his arms. “Lara! Ma chère.” I hold on to that last embrace, thinking of André Gide’s quote “Savoir se libérer n’est rien ; l’ardu, c’est savoir être libre.” (Liberating one’s self is nothing; what is arduous is knowing how to be free.) I thank John, and so many who teach with passion and grace, for reminding us all how to be just a little more free.

Why Is the College-Application Process So Complicated?

Jamal Trotman is a star at Eagle Academy for Young Men in Brooklyn.

He made the All-State football team and was a team captain. He wants to be a journalist, and he’s interned at NBC and at the investment firm Blackstone. His counselors say he’s a dedicated student and selected him to be his school’s spokesman at a college fair last fall.

Chalkbeat


But his college options could be limited by a misunderstanding: He didn’t realize he needed to answer most of the questions on the SAT.

The mistake could have been a small one. (Like many students, he eventually retook the exam after preparing more seriously.) But the SAT trouble, and a series of other recent setbacks, might have significant consequences. Though he still has time, months into the search process, he hasn’t sent off many applications, overwhelmed by his long list of schools.

“This process is more of a nightmare rather than an experience to me,” he said.

I first met Trotman, who was born in Guyana and lives in Flatbush, at a college fair this fall. He agreed to let Chalkbeat check in throughout his college search—and his story illustrates just how many opportunities there are during the application process for students to get tripped up.


Oct. 23: The College Fair

Jamal Trotman finishes study hall where he works on college applications. (Stephanie Snyder / Chalkbeat)

Eagle Academy II, a small, all-boys public high school that serves mostly black and Hispanic students, is focused on helping its students get to college. The school had a 95 percent graduation rate last year and has a dedicated college counselor.

At a college fair at Eagle Academy’s other campus in the Bronx, Trotman explained that he already had a dream graduate school in mind: Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. But he was still unsure where he wanted to go first, though some applications would be due in a few months. The end of football season would mean more time to look into schools, he said.

Trotman has a B average and a passion for writing. But when he was younger, Trotman thought he would attend a trade school and enter the construction industry.

“After I found my love for writing, it just made me want to go to college,” he said.

Nov. 2: A Massive List

The college adviser’s office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II (Stephanie Snyder / Chalkbeat)

By November, the college search had taken on a life of its own.

Trotman’s dream to study journalism had spawned a confusing list of about 50 potential schools—and he had no idea how to pare it down. Northeastern, Syracuse, and University of New Hampshire were under consideration. If it weren’t for football, he said, he’d think about Brooklyn College.

He knew he wanted a school with a good journalism program and low tuition bill. He also hoped to move out of state—and to play football. Still, schools made his list when family members or advisers suggested them, and he had trouble deciding which would best match his resume and need for financial aid. This confusion lasted well into his college application process.

“The minute I try to take a school off my list then I realize, oh, I put that school there for a reason,” he said.

Trotman isn’t on his own as he works toward his goals. His three older brothers went to college, an aunt went to Rutgers, and he has mentors from his internships. Eagle Academy provides a college counselor and a host of other advisers to students. (Citywide, 79 percent of high-school students said someone at their school was helping them plan for after high school, according to the city’s survey, but many high-school counselors are stretched thin.)

Trotman’s grateful to have the help, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.

“It’s just everyone,” he said. “‘Hey, you should check out this school, you should check out that school.’”

Hefty tuition is about the only reason Trotman had removed a school from his list. He’s doesn’t want to apply to schools that cost more than $35,000 each year out of fear that he would end up with the bills.

Monteka Maddox, the school’s college counselor, says that’s a misconception about financial aid that a lot of students come to her with.

“There are plenty of guys here who graduated last year who aren’t paying anything,” she said.

Nov. 28: The Offseason Arrives

Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school’s operations director (Stephanie Snyder / Chalkbeat)

For the second year in a row, the Eagle Academy football team made it to a city championship game. Playing in the championship with his “brothers” was a milestone Trotman had worked toward for years.

In the third quarter, Trotman was blindsided by an opponent from Frederick Douglas Academy. His foot slammed into the ground and his body twisted in the opposite direction.

“At first I thought it was just a cramp in my calf,” he said. “Then I realized I couldn’t get up.”

His team won the game. But Trotman began the offseason—the time he had waited for to select schools and finish applications—at the latest possible date, with two torn ligaments and and a torn meniscus. He scheduled surgery on his knee and began walking with a brace and cane.

Dec. 16: Waiting for His SAT Scores

Trotman talks to Niles about his college application process. (Stephanie Snyder / Chalkbeat)

Trotman hobbled into his college adviser’s office on December 16.

He still hadn’t applied to SUNY or CUNY schools, and he still had about 40 schools on his list. He was also deep into the 800-page “Ultimate Scholarship Book.”

“This is even more effective than FAFSA to me,” he said, referring to the basic federal financial-aid form, “because I can just look through the book, skim through it real quick, and apply.”

Trotman hadn’t applied to schools yet because he was waiting on his SAT scores, he explained. He took the test in May 2015, and was under the impression that he could reach his goal of scoring a 1,000 on the reading and math sections combined by answering only about half of the questions. (It was a strategy he acknowledged later—with his typical good-natured attitude—was “kind of stupid.”)

He ended up with an 890. That’s 20 points below the average score in New York City for the reading and math sections in 2015, and 97 points below the national average.

Determined to boost his score when he took the test again in early December, Trotman enrolled in an SAT-prep class. He had studied hard, sometimes skipping homework to complete practice questions. He knew the new scores would be released soon.

“I know it’s going to be better,” he said.

Dec. 21: Expecting SAT Scores But Getting Something Else

Trotman stayed up until midnight on December 21 to check his scores. When he logged on, he faced an unwelcome surprise: His scores didn’t exist.

Confused, he called the College Board, which administers the SAT. No one could provide answers because staff members were out for the holidays. The next Monday, Trotman had surgery on his knee.

News arrived just three days before the Jan. 1 application deadline for some colleges. His test was under review, which his counselor said was likely because his score increased so much.

College Board officials told Trotman that he’d have to wait until mid-January to receive his scores. In the meantime, he will miss a few early January college application deadlines. (College Board did not respond to questions about the reason for Trotman’s delayed scores to protect his privacy. They said scores can be delayed for a number of reasons.)

The questions almost certainly won’t prevent Trotman from going to college. Plenty of colleges have rolling admissions or later deadlines. After he gets the scores, he’s hoping to get his applications sent out quickly.

But in the meantime, he’s waiting to take the next step.

“It’s kind of a setback,” he said. “This right here is my make-it-or-break-it for my future.”


This post appears courtesy of ChalkBeat New York.

The Hidden Hunger on College Campuses


College conjures up images of all-you-can-eat dining halls, midnight runs for pizza, tubs of ice cream in the dorm-room fridge, and ethnically sensitive burritos. I remember working in the dishroom of a dining hall as a student and grabbing trays of half-eaten burgers and pancakes from the conveyer belt, dumping all the mess into large trash cans. If anything, college is associated with an excess of food, where students gain the “Freshman 15.”

Recent research on hunger at colleges opens serious questions about those assumptions. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education policy and sociology at University of Wisconsin, last year surveyed 4,000 students at 10 community colleges across the country, including Delgado Community College in Louisiana, Essex County College in New Jersey, and Western Wyoming Community College. Her study, published in December, suggests that more than half of all community-college students struggle with food insecurity.

Goldrick-Rab assessed the food-security status of these students using six standardized prompts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking about their nutrition habits and experiences with hunger. Roughly half—52 percent—of the respondents reported marginal to very low food security, while the remaining students reported high security. Specifically, one in five respondents had very low food security, which meant that they had “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” Twenty-two percent of the respondents indicated that they had cut the size of their meals or skipped meals and were hungry because they didn’t have enough money for food.

In addition to the survey, Goldrick-Rab in an interview said she conducted focus groups with students at these colleges and tracked 50 students over six years. She found that two types of students struggle with food insecurity. The first group of students were in poverty before they began college; in their case, hunger and poverty is a preexisting condition. The second includes those who were in the lower-middle class before they started college and were forced by their higher-education expenses to deal with food insecurity for the first time.

The study of hunger among community-college students is noteworthy in large part because of evolving demographics in higher education. As Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy director from the Center for Law and Social Policy, explained, people often think that college students are aged 18 to 25, childless, and attending a four-year institution. But that’s not the experience of the typical college student. In fact, most students are older, low income, raising a family, or attending a community college, she said: “The nontraditional student is the new normal.” And ultimately, according to Lower-Basch, “we shouldn’t be surprised that this group is reporting food shortages.” Roughly half of American high-school students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals—kids whose needs don’t change when they go to college.

While a sample of 10 colleges might seem low, Goldrick-Rab said her research is the only work to date that has quantified the scope of the food-security problem among college students; the federal government for its part doesn’t collect this information on student financial-aid forms. Goldrick-Rab suspects that this problem is broader than she was able to capture in this study and feels that more research is needed to fully understand the extent of hunger on college campuses.

Hunger has a large impact on learning and college retention. For one, there is the obvious physical problem that an empty stomach makes it hard to learn in class. For another, it may force students to make decisions that interfere with completion. They might work longer hours at their jobs or take long breaks from their studies to earn the money needed to buy dinner, for example. These decisions make it harder for students to get to graduation day in a reasonable timeframe.

The relatively low cost of community college aside, students rarely receive enough support from the government or their school to cover living expenses, including childcare, housing, and food. Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at CLASP whose research also underlines the gravity of the hunger problem at American colleges, cited a several-thousand-dollar gap between financial-aid packages and the amount of money students need to cover those expenses. Those expenses, she said, comprise almost two-thirds of the total cost of attending a community college.

Many have difficulty accessing government food programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Only 20 percent of the students in Goldrick-Rab’s study who had low or very low food security received SNAP. That’s in part because SNAP, which is still colloquially known as the food-stamp program, has work requirements. And while there are exceptions in the rules that would enable some students to qualify for the program, the provisions can be extremely confusing: To apply, for example, students might have to go off campus to the government office, endure long waits, and then fill out excessive documentation. (Some advocates believe that school attendance should count toward the work requirements in SNAP for college students. CLASP’s December 2015 report, “Bolstering Non-Traditional Student Success,” discusses other reforms that would assist low income college students.) Lots of students opt to avoid taking out loans to support their meals in fear of going to debt.

Many community colleges are striving to streamline the application process for food stamps and come up with other ways to address student hunger. In addition to helping students complete SNAP paperwork, according to Duke-Benfield, some campuses are training staff in the financial-aid office to advise students about the range of government programs, while others are training their academic faculty to recognize students who may be hungry or homeless and to counsel them. More schools are putting questions about food and housing into the admissions forms; on-campus food pantries, even at four year schools, are popping up around the country.

Take the Thrive Center for Financial Success at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, which was created last February to assist students meet their daily living expenses in order to increase retention rates. Crystal Colón, its coordinator, said the school, which is also creating an on-campus food pantry, had to respond to the large numbers of students who were hungry and living in cars. The Thrive Center helps nearly 600 of its 6,000 students obtain clothing vouchers, acquire emergency cell phones, and completing SNAP forms; it provides information about hours and locations of local food pantries.

The Rise of Food-Studies Programs


Bergen Community College, meanwhile, asked the Center for Food Action, a nonprofit group that provides emergency services for low income residents in Northern New Jersey, to create an on-campus food pantry for students in 2014. Lisa Pitz, a program director for CFA, said that administrators were concerned about the number of students that were checking into the health center due to poor nutrition. Some hadn’t eaten in several days. Pitz provides three days of groceries to students, as well as staff and adjunct faculty, every Tuesday and Thursday and provides microwavable meals to students who need immediate sustenance. These students also need help with housing and bus fare to get home that day, so she connects them with local governmental agencies that provide social services.

“These aren’t people who are sitting around not doing anything,” Pitz said, “These are kids who are working full time and going to college and still are hungry… I just hope that these students get good paying jobs when they graduate.”

Goldrick-Rab plans to expand her survey to study more students in 2017 and to monitor their access to food. Ultimately, she wants people to understand that students can’t pass exams if they are hungry

The Rise of American-Style Charter Schools in England

Without a doubt, the biggest change to the educational landscape in England over the next few years will be the growth of so-called academies and free schools, both modeled at least in part on U.S. charter schools.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would like every government-funded school in England to be a free school or academy by 2020. At present, they represent 60 percent of the country’s roughly 2,000 state-supported secondary schools.

The government’s academies program was launched in the 1990s under former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Initially, they were confined to inner-city areas. Now, though, any school can seek academy status. Failing schools, however, are forced to become academies with new private sponsors and—usually—a new principal (or headteacher, as school leaders are called in the U.K.).

Education Writers Association

A mantra appears to have been adopted by Conservative politicians which—roughly summed up—translates to academies and free schools are “good,” and state-maintained, local-authority schools are “bad.”

So, what exactly are these schools? Both free schools and academies are run by private sponsors—normally faith-based groups, teacher-led cooperatives, or private companies—many of whom will already have a track record in running fee-paying private schools. They have freedom to pay whatever salaries they like (within their budget) and freedom to ignore the national curriculum for state-supported schools. They are not allowed to select students by ability and will normally take in students from a specific geographical area surrounding the schools. The only difference between free schools and academies is that free schools are new schools while academies are existing schools (run by local authorities, our equivalent of states) that have converted to academy status.

Testing U.S. Education Policies in Brazil


Although free schools are seen in some respects as akin to U.S. charter schools, this approach especially draws on a model adopted in Sweden, whereby faith-based groups, community groups, parents, and teachers could receive state financial backing to set up their own schools.

Some of the free schools are remarkably innovative. They include bilingual primary schools, oases in a desert of poor language provision throughout the U.K. education system.

The trouble is the government has decreed that all new schools must be free schools. Local authorities cannot open their own schools to combat a shortage of school seats in their area.

At a time when the school population is expanding due to a rise in the birth rate and immigration, this can leave communities without enough school seats, if there are no sponsors around who want to start up a free school. As a result, existing schools are being told they must expand to meet the need and—in the case of some of the most popular schools—risk losing their popularity, sometimes gained because they have been of a manageable size.

My verdict on England’s free-school and academies initiatives is this: They offer some good ideas but are not a panacea for improving the education system. If the Government is truly committed to school choice, as it professes to be, why not let local authorities throw their hats into the ring—and bid for new provision, too.


This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

The Importance of High-School Mentors


In her job as a “dream director,” Jessica Valoris is tasked with unleashing the potential of disadvantaged students at an inner-city high school in Washington, D.C. Her employer, a New York-based nonprofit called The Future Project, embeds mentors like Valoris in public schools, characterizing her role as a “midwife of dreams” and “warrior of possibility.” The Atlantic’s video team has documented the power that mentors like Valoris can have at a defining juncture in the lives of disadvantaged young people: high school.

Serious risks like homelessness, suspension, early parenthood, and a lack of academic confidence threaten to derail poor, young Americans on their path toward high-school graduation. Yet stories like this one, and a growing body of research—including a study last year by America’s Promise Alliance, which found that students with social support are more likely to re-engage with school in the face of adversity—suggest that the United States should invest broadly in mentorship.

“Just as the federal government can see something like health care as a basic need, mentoring should be that, too,” said David Shapiro, the CEO of The National Mentoring Partnership, a founding partner of America’s Promise Alliance that, among other things, advocates for federal funding. “Having consistent support, outside home is essential.” Experts emphasize that mentorship entails much more than offering compassion to a child; mentors serve a range of needs, from ensuring access to food and other basic resources to setting academic expectations. But how scalable are its current models?

Formal mentorship is currently supported by philanthropy and federal agencies including the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Corporation for National and Community Service. In the fiscal year 2015, OJJDP granted $90 million to mentoring organizations to support at-risk youth across the country—a sum sufficient to cover hundreds of thousands of students but not sufficient for need, according to Shapiro.

But other limitations, beyond funding challenges, make it difficult to expand such programs. For one, mentorship programs aren’t always effective. (In some cases they can even prove harmful, particularly when it comes to mentoring relationships that terminate prematurely.) For another, a prevailing thread among education experts today is that a single mentor isn’t sufficient. “We’re too enamored with the idea of the heroic volunteer who swoops in,” said Marc Freedman, the author of the influential 1999 book, The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Volunteerism.

Indeed, education experts and nonprofits are embracing the idea that a broad web of formal and informal mentors is key to successfully serving young people. “This changes the conversation from ‘You have to be everyone to someone,’ to ‘You have to be someone to everyone,’” said Jonathan Zaff, the executive director of the Center for Promise, echoing an argument recently put forth by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In an email, Putnam, who in his book notes that privileged youth are two to three times more likely to have an informal mentor outside of their family, said that “kids from working-class homes need more caring adults in their lives.” Disadvantaged students, he said, often lack access to the range of role models available to their more privileged peers—such as coaches, clergy, neighbors, or family friends. Absent these advisors, underprivileged students may be deprived of the kinds of information necessary for navigating and thriving in large institutions like colleges—for exercising what Putnam described as “savvy.”

Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, cited a difference in perceptions of the future between privileged students and their counterparts, many of whom are at a major disadvantage because they do not believe they are “post-secondary material.” Adults, she observed, need to help underprivileged students believe that they can go to college. “The idea that you have a future in higher education does not exist,” she said of some communities.

Mentors are just one form of role models on campus that can shape student outcomes. School counselors represent another tier of non-teacher adults who can make a large difference for students: A 2013 study correlated the addition of a single guidance counselor at a given school with a 10 percentage point increase in four-year-college-going rates at the school. Still, like mentorship programs, school counseling suffers from limited funding.

And differences in resources for such services—access to private counselors or private schools with smaller counseling ratios among advantaged students—can further perpetuate inequality. “This is contradictory to the fundamental idea that education ought to be the source of social mobility,” said Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an expert on college admissions.

study revealed that the median ratio at public high schools was roughly three times that at private ones. These ratios suggest there is little interaction between counselors and their students in public schools, and because students with extreme situations (such as legal or health problems) can demand significant attention and disproportionately crowd out a counselor’s schedule, the amount of one-on-one time available to students is often extremely inconsistent.

Meanwhile, according to some educators, counselors shouldn’t focus strictly on getting kids into college. Nancy E. Hill, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, suggested that although both college-bound students and their non-college-bound counterparts are under an incredible amount of stress to figure out their futures, the former get much more support than the latter. “Guidance programs largely focus on college, and students not focused on college feel left out,” she noted, suggesting another reason for increasing the staff and expertise in Guidance Departments. Valoris, the dream director, advocates customizing post-high-school plans to fit student needs, too, whether or not those needs include postsecondary education. “Personally I don’t think college is for everyone. We get pushed into going to college blindly, without a plan,” she said. Instead, she asks her students: “What is your dream for yourself and how will college support you in doing that?”

Other problems with the current system of high-school guidance counseling include a lack of sufficient counselor training related to college access and success—an issue raised by Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative—and the de-prioritization of guidance counselors’ time and responsibilities. “‘School counselor’ is currently a catch-all for a lot of different responsibilities,” said Lindsay Page, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education. She described responsibilities ranging from course scheduling, crisis management, and discipline to college counseling and recommendation writing. Sometimes counselors are even asked to take on tasks far outside their job description, such as substitute teaching and even lunchroom monitoring. “Schools require better articulation and protection of the roles that counselors play,” she said.

Savitz-Romer, the education lecturer at Harvard, advocates for training principals to better utilize their counselors, in part by explicitly evaluating school performance based on student outcomes—and not simply based on tests, but on postsecondary plans. “Schools are primarily seen as places of academic instruction,” she said. “The more we hold schools accountable for postsecondary outcomes, the more they will work on their own systems of preparation.” She envisions a world in which every high school has a post-secondary leadership team, one with the same resources as instructional teams.

Do Metal Detectors in Schools Do More Harm Than Good?

On the coldest morning New York City has seen this winter, a stream of teenage students hit a bottleneck at the front of a Brooklyn school building. They shed their jackets, gloves, and belts, shivering as they wait to pass through a metal detector and send their backpacks through an X-ray machine. School-safety agents stand nearby, poised to step in if the alarm bleats.

It’s an everyday occurrence for more than 100,000 middle and high-school students across the city.

On this morning, as on every school day, senior Justin Feldeo prepares to be pulled aside for separate screening by a hand wand. Feldeo is studying to be a firefighter and the boots he wears for class trigger the metal detectors.

Fifteen minutes after the formal start of the school day, students are still pouring in, even later for having to go through the machines.

Diverse


Almost as many New York City students run the gauntlet of X-ray machines each day as pass through the scanners at busy Miami International Airport. And the procedure is numbingly similar. Students must remove belts, shoes, and sometimes bobby pins as the wait stretches as long as an hour.

A ProPublica survey found that the daily ritual is borne disproportionately by students of color; black and Hispanic students in high school are nearly three times more likely to walk through a metal detector than their white counterparts.

Nearly 21 years after a fearful city installed them at the front doors of more than 80 schools, there are growing questions about whether the security precautions do more harm than good. Today, by ProPublica and WNYC’s count, students at more than 236 New York City schools are required to pass through metal detectors.

“There are a lot of things that are done in the name of student safety that don’t view the students as the people who need to be protected, but view the students as the people somebody else needs to be protected from,” said Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate, a secondary school with 423 students in grades 6 through 12. She is trying to get the scanners removed from her building in Brooklyn.

The metal detectors were first installed in the early 1990s when crime rates were much higher and have stayed in place even as crime in the public schools has fallen 48 percent over the past 10 years. Crime in schools in the last year alone has fallen 11 percent, according to the New York Police Department.

Since 1998, only two permanent metal detectors have been removed. And their necessity appears almost never re-evaluated: The scanners have remained after the schools in which they were installed shut down and entirely new schools opened in the same buildings.

And while some principals say the security measures provide a critical line of defense at schools with particularly volatile mixes of students, few believe more than 200 New York City schools still meet this bar.

In a report called “Security With Dignity,” a task force created by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended last July that the city remove some metal detectors. The NYPD agreed to study the issue, but has provided no timeline. And nearly six months later, the Department of Education has yet to publicize criteria for removing them.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education would not comment on a plan for removing the metal detectors. “We will continue to ensure students are in safe environments where they can learn and succeed,” said Toya Holness, a deputy press secretary.

The recommendations have faced stiff opposition from the union which represents the New York City school district’s over 5,000 safety agents, who are technically part of the NYPD.

“‘Security with dignity,’” said Greg Floyd, the head of Teamsters Local 237. “I don’t know how you have the two in the same sentence.”

Floyd said the metal detectors are working as an effective deterrent and warned that the task force should be wary about cheering their removal. “In this case, they better very well hope they work, because if they don’t, then they all have problems,” he said.

And Floyd brushed aside the complaints that the scanners are used primarily in schools serving low-income black and Hispanic students. Children from those neighborhoods, he said, often require them.

“Would I say, put metal detectors in Brooklyn Tech? I would not,” Floyd said, because the students there, “some from affluent neighborhoods,” are “committed to learning, they’re not committed to fighting. That’s not the case in every New York City public school, and you can’t say, ‘Treat the children the same’ because we don’t do that.”

Despite the widespread use of the scanners, the amount of contraband found is low. In the approximately 3 million scans conducted in the first two months of this school year, only a tiny number of contraband items were discovered, according to a NYPD document obtained by ProPublica. Among the 126 possible weapons seized at schools that scan daily—some found hidden on school grounds, others by scanners—were an unloaded handgun, 73 knives, 21 boxcutters, three BB guns, and an assortment of loose bullets and razor blades.

When Lifting a School Cellphone Ban Is a Win for Poor Students


For Jennings, what matters most is the students’ mindset as they go through the detectors.

“It won’t be the first time they get scanned, it won’t be the first time that someone looks at them in a way that’s less than complimentary” because of race, gender or ethnicity, he said. “Helping them learn how to cope with that, and seeing themselves as bigger than the opinion of another man or woman is what I think gets them through.”

One of the few school buildings that has managed to remove the scanners, the former Eastern District High School in Brooklyn, did so by enlisting students in the effort to quell violence. In 2006, the high school was on its way to be shut down and replaced by three smaller schools in the same building. The three new principals joined forces with elected local officials, parents and persuaded the Board of Education to remove the machines.

“We came in as wide-eyed, idealistic, newbies, and we wanted to change things,” said William Jusino, principal of Progress High School, one of the schools that moved into the building. Eastern District, he said, used to have such a bad reputation as a “dumping ground for difficult children and staff” that local shops would close down when school got out only to reopen later. “We wanted to make sure that we avoided that,” Jusino said. “That we didn’t grow into that type of situation.”

Jusino and the other principals took a stance that the metal detectors had to go even though everyone was “never 100 percent sure it was a good idea.” District officials gave the new schools their chance to rethink school safety.

For the first two years, Jusino recalled, students were reminded on a daily basis: They were being trusted to not bring in weapons into the schools.

“We’ve been on high alert ever since,” Jusino said, “You’ve gotta make sure that there isn’t a serious incident, god forbid, and how could you make sure? How could you guarantee that? You really can’t. What you could do is invest in your children.”

The most serious challenge to the scanner-less approach came last January when two Progress High School students were shot in connection with gang activity a few blocks from the school. Deans ushered kids inside and pop-up metal detectors were stationed in the building.

“Folks were genuinely afraid and anxious, and I understood it. I’m anxious every day,” Jusino said, recalling a emergency staff meeting at which several faculty members expressed their desire to have metal detectors back. “But the answer is not the machines, the answer’s the relationships. The answer’s giving kids options in the school.”

“Weapons will get into the building without metal detectors. Weapons will get into a building with metal detectors,” Jusino said. “The idea is ‘What do you do. What programs do you do. What’s the trust and values you have in your school.’”


This article appears courtesy of ProPublica.