John Elfrank-Dana is a social studies teacher, Carnegie Scholar and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.
When I came to Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan as a teacher in 1986, I was amazed at the orderliness and serious focus on academics compared to the school in Brooklyn from which I had come.
It was an eerie feeling when I first turned my back to the class to total silence and, having become accustomed to some kind of mischief from the students, turned back around to see the students with pens at the ready -- not to throw, but to take notes. That took a little getting used to.
Sixteen years later, it’s common for student conversations to start up, cellphones to come out, and even, on occasion, to have an object hurled at the teacher.
Now we are called “NY’s Worst High School” by The New York Post. I usually won’t talk to The Post, and I chose not to at this time. But while their claim of “Worst High School in NY” is over the top, it does capture some of the desperation felt here by staff and many students, even though, against the odds and bad publicity, many of the staff and students still struggle and engage in meaningful classroom experiences each day.
However, the crucial ingredient to turning around the school is, unfortunately, a half-hour or more subway ride away in the outer boroughs: the families.
Many teachers call homes in the early days of the semester to report problematic behavior of our students only to find that either the phone number on file is no longer connected or that leaving a voice mail fails to produce a return call. On parent conference days the absence of parents -- especially those of the most needy students -- leaves the school a ghost town.
Our role as a school that students would travel to used to work for us at Bergtraum. We had a robust specialized business program. The majority of students who attended our school read on grade level or better, and had an appropriate level of emotional maturity.
We had a business department with more than 20 teachers, many of whom had links to the business community and could deliver internships for students and staff in organizations like the New York Stock Exchange. The students could function and thrive in a large school and take advantage of its economies of scale.
However, the specialized business program has long since been gutted through years of budget cuts commencing in the early 1990s. The size of the business department has dwindled to about half a dozen teachers, and internship opportunities have shriveled.
We have a large number of students who read significantly below grade level and have acute social needs, as was evident in the recent brawl with school security and the New York Police Department that was caught on camera and posted on the Web. (On its most recent report card, the school was given a D.)
No amount of tweaking instruction with new standards or techniques, or print-rich bulletin boards (as evident on the wall behind the brawl), can save our school.
Almost every discretionary hour for our staff is spent preparing for that two-day visit from state and city inspectors. It dominates common planning and all professional development time.
Curriculum in core subject areas has been reduced to test prep. In addition, when the state and city evaluators come next month to evaluate us, bulletin boards and common core standards on lesson plans and blackboards will be their primary focus.
Increasingly, over the past 10 or so years, as large schools were broken up, the students whose families were proactive and had a plan went to the small boutique schools, and Murry Bergtraum was sent students whose families had no plan. The results were a changed academic and social demographic.
And so Bergtraum has become the poster child for a failed education policy that ignores the primary role of families, as well as children's emotional and psychological prerequisites for learning, in exchange for a system of pseudo-accountability based on standardized test scores.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other ed reformers need to seriously consider if it makes sense to send academically and socially needy students so far away from home to go to school. The fundamentals for academic success include family involvement. As a parent of three, I understand how much work needs to be done in the home for my children to do well in school. The needier the student, the more family involvement is required.
Our students who are of high need would be best served in a local school where their families are within arm’s reach of the school social work staff -- and where reduced class size and other wraparound services for the students and their families are provided.
Teachers can be offered sizable bonuses to teach in these schools to help ensure that not only the newest and least experienced teachers are serving these students.
Bergtraum itself could be a neighborhood school, or be transitioned back into a school with a robust business program that attracts more academically and socially ready students.
It’s a call for a paradigm shift in thinking that goes against the grain in education reform movements today. It’s also a paradigm solution that won’t line the pockets of the new education consulting establishment.
The public school is like a nerve ending of our broader society. Bergtraum is itself a nerve ending, signaling what’s wrong with educational reform today: the abandonment of community.
Many will say we cannot afford the reduced class sizes, increased services and teacher bonuses to provide this shift to the community school for these students. After seeing what has happened to our school I can’t imagine how we cannot afford to bring the education of these students back to their communities.