“You have to see what we do here,” Maria Ortiz, the literacy coach at Miller Street, said to me. “Only by experiencing their frustrations can you possibly understand. You have to get involved. It doesn’t take much to care.”
I was there to chronicle the Miller Street struggle and lend a hand. Maybe she was right, and this is what it will take – more of us, PhDs at schools like Miller Street. Nothing else is working – not high stakes testing, not the approximately $84 billion in Education Recovery Act grants, not Obama’s Race to the Top, which unfortunately links “race” with “learning.”
Learning takes quite a bit of time, especially when we consider the developmental stages of children – it’s not a race. And learning is not about getting to “the top,” but rather, about understanding one’s place in the world, about finding an emotionally and spiritually satisfying place to work so as to give the imagination full use. Race to the Top is the antithesis.
I wasn’t sure how to begin to unravel the disorder I was experiencing. On my first visit to Miller Street in March of last year, 10 out of the 39 teachers were absent, and most hadn’t bothered to make sure a substitute covered for them, a contractual requirement. If an absent teacher doesn’t replace herself, then an automated “subfinder system” is supposed to kick in. But the system was broken – and it remains broken. Office personnel had to go to the phones to find last minute subs, and Principal Shakirah Miller had to orchestrate new class configurations, pairing two grades into one, for instance.
Amalia Dejeno, one of the absent teachers, was scheduled for observation that day. Ms. Dejeno, a stout Puerto Rican woman in her early 50s, told me that she was “legally sick,” meaning that “illness” – flu, a sudden cold, fever – is an acceptable excuse. Amalia Dejeno is “Tier 1,” a final stage after all other reviews – Tiers 2 and 3 – had already been exhausted for her and she was consistently found “unsatisfactory.” Tier 1 is where teachers are about to lose their license. It can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to dismiss a teacher, if documented properly. In Amalia Dejeno’s case, it’s taken over 20 years, which is more along the lines of how this really works. Some unsatisfactory teachers are never dismissed, but rather, moved from one school to another and never given an unsatisfactory rating. Critics of education blame the teacher’s union for the collusion, a “blue flu” – an internal, never discussed protectionism. For twenty-nine years Amalia has received “satisfactory” ratings – until she came to the Miller Street School. She’s been marred by a system that’s refused to qualify her “unsatisfactory” early on when she might have been able to turn her performance around; she’s never been given guidance either, she told me. Instead, she’s just been moved on. Ms. Dejeno is harsh on the kids, always short and angry, scolding them at the slightest infraction, like speaking while walking in line to lunch. She knows very little about teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), her presumed area of expertise. In personality and knowledge of her stated field, she is unqualified to be in a classroom.
“She’s trying to get rid of me,” said Ms. Dejeno, in a halting English, referring to Miller Street’s principal. “I’m fighting it.”
When I first looked into Shakirah’s office, prominently displayed on her desk was a long wooden plaque that read: John 3:16: For God so Loved the World that He gave His one and only Son. Shakirah lost her father to a drunk driver when she was thirteen, which in part has made her who she is – strong, driven, intense, physical. (She plays basketball, volleyball, runs track, and goes to the gym several times a week.) Her mother became a drug addict soon after her husband died, relinquishing all responsibility for her 13-year-old daughter. A car hit her mentally handicapped younger brother at the age of ten. In four months, Shakirah lost five members of her family – a father, an aunt, her brother and two male cousins, 19 and 22, shot dead in the streets. Yet her fondest memories are of Newark, growing up in the 17th Avenue projects and attending the 18th Avenue School. Although life in Newark was not easy for her, she did well in school.
“I guess you could say that my mother was in the house,” Shakirah said. “Some of my aunts helped me then.”
Now Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, New Jersey, is her respite; prayer gives her clarity, a sanctuary that gives her peace.
“The job is emotionally draining,” she told me. “I take on everyone’s energy.”
She spends endless hours documenting poor performance — probation, withholding pay, no advancement—and creates teams for each grade, pairing weaker teachers with stronger ones and moving weaker teachers to lower grades from the higher ones where higher order thinking is required. It’s like a military operation. She estimates that 10-15% of the school’s teachers are incompetent. Maria Ortiz, Miller Street’s literacy coach, estimates much higher, more like 30-40%.
“Dejeno isn’t going to make it,” Shakirah informed me. “We have all the documentation we need. Now I can turn to others. “