Teaching at Northern State Prison

Last October, Netflix released an original documentary directed by Ava DuVernay called 13th. As originally put forward by the NY Times, this full-length feature film is “powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” and “will get your blood boiling.” The film takes a close look at the 13th amendment, which was originally passed in 1865 and “ended” slavery in the United States of America, with one major caveat. Here is the text taken verbatim from section one of the 13th amendment to our constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Ava DuVernay’s documentary then goes on to show how much those fourteen words, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” have been systematically abused in this country for decades. I honestly cannot recommend watching the movie enough. That being said, watching the film seriously challenged my previous notions and ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. For me, it was the second time in my life a documentary shook me to my core, and I knew that I needed to do something – anything, to stop these systems of oppression from moving forward. (The other movie being the highly controversial Waiting for Superman, which pushed me to apply to Teach For America). In Michelle Alexander’s terms, I needed to stop standing still on the moving walkway once and for all.

While having a conversation about the movie with my student teacher at the time, he told me about an incredible nonprofit called the Petey Greene Program. The mission of the organization is to supplement education in correctional institutions by preparing volunteers, primarily college students, to provide free, quality tutoring and related programming to support the academic achievement of incarcerated people. The Petey Greene Program “is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington, D.C. history.  While incarcerated for armed robbery, Greene became the prison’s disc jockey and subsequently a role model for many other individuals incarcerated in the facility.  Greene’s close friend and mentor, Charlie Puttkammer, was inspired by Greene’s life, and founded the Petey Greene Program in his honor, to strengthen correctional education services and offer college students the opportunity to pursue meaningful and valuable work in the criminal justice system.”

For the past year, I have been privileged to teach adjudicated adults at Northern State Prison through the Petey Greene Program. After two months of paperwork, background checks, and an intense DOC volunteer training, I received my approval, and have subsequently volunteered at Northern State Prison every Thursday afternoon for the past year. Northern State Prison is a mixed security prison, meaning that the facility detains people with different levels of custody, including general population, special needs, administrative close supervision unit (adults who have incurred serious disciplinary charges) and therapeutic community (addictive behaviors). I normally arrive at the correctional facility at around 3:00, as the prison is less than ten minutes from the high school that I currently teach at. After about 20 minutes of processing, including signing in, verifying clearance status, going through airport-style security, and getting frisked down, we are escorted by a corrections officer to the secured area through the prison yard and then to the library.

Once we arrive, our students are typically waiting for us at large tables in the library (see picture below). The students range in age from early 20’s to late 50’s, and  are all working relentlessly to pass the T.A.S.C. (test assessing school completion), formerly known as the G.E.D.  Almost universally, the students are hungry for knowledge, and are always appreciative of the time we spend with them. I found out recently that Northern State also has a pilot program with Rutgers for those that are looking to attain a college education after they get their high school equivalency.

green-2
The library at Northern State Prison

It is one thing to read about mass incarceration in The New Jim Crow or watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, but it another altogether to experience what a prison is like first hand.  As officials at Petey Greene often say, for many of the incarcerated adults we are working with, we are not giving them a second or third chance at an education, but rather a genuine first chance. Study after study shows the effectiveness of prison education programs. This NY Times article point out that “every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on re-imprisonment costs down the line.” An NPR report put forward research that shows that “when inmates get a college education, they are half as likely to end up back in prison.” I think we as a country need to do some serious soul-searching about mass incarceration; we must look to other countries that use their system as a legitimate corrections system, as opposed to a mundane punishment system. After all, isn’t the point of prison to rehabilitate people, not make their lives worse? Can we honestly say that the corrections system we currently have in America is achieving that vision? (Recommended video: Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes reports on the German prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment and allows convicts an astonishing amount of liberty.)032017_6895_Tutors-at-Northern-State-Prison

This entire experience has truly been transformative in ways previously thought unimaginable. For me, volunteering has brought up dozens more questions than answers, such as why we deprive thousands of people of their liberties, often for nonviolent crimes, and why some states permanently take away voting rights from former inmates even after they have paid their “debts” back to society. From a financial perspective, it costs more than $40,000 to incarcerate one inmate per year in New Jersey alone. To put that in perspective, we spend less than half of that on each of our public-school students annually. As a teacher, I am of the belief that an excellent education is the only true inoculation for mass incarceration, yet we still cannot get policy makers to vote for common-sense legislation, such as universal pre-K. As Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times points out, the “growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is early education programs.” In another study, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among students who had gone through an early childhood education program. In a way, universal pre-K is one of the best interventions we have to fight the school-to-prison pipeline.

To quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have seen weekly how we systematically remove the humanity and dignity from incarcerated people, and it begs the question as to who we are as a society. I often hear people proclaiming how the U.S. is the “home of the free,” yet we have the highest imprisonment rate per person in the world, including oppressive places like North Korea. As it has been put forward, ending the era of mass incarceration while simultaneously increasing the funding and attention paid to our public schools AND correctional education programs is the only way that will prove that the United States still stands for liberty, opportunity, and an inextinguishable chance at individual achievement.

Every Thursday evening at 5:00pm, a corrections officer comes into the library, gives us the signal to wrap things up, and escorts us out of the prison. As I walk through the prison yard each week, I cannot help to wonder about what all of the incarcerated people are thinking about, many of whom have never held a smartphone or even used the internet. As I wait for the control tower to open the stereotypical series of electrically-locked steel doors, I question how far we have come as a society, and reflect about how much progress we still need to make. For at the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m. every Thursday, I ultimately get my liberty back. Shouldn’t everyone?

Interested in learning more about or applying to the Petey Greene Program? Click here 

 

When Ed Reform Goes Too Far

As all of my friends and co-workers would attest, I am extremely passionate about the field of education. I fundamentally believe that our students and thus our schools are essential to the future of our great nation. I also believe that every student can be pushed onto a track towards future success; Stanford Professor Dr. Jo Boaler pointed out during a recent conference in Boston that 95% of our current students have the mental and physical capacity to attend a post-secondary institution if they are taught in the right way. It promptly follows that we must make our schools better if we are serious about the lofty goal of putting every student on the road to college and career readiness.
Over the course of the last five years, I have read almost every book I could get my hands on that examines various theories about so-called education reform. I have considered a wide range of diverse opinions, ranging from Diane Ravitch to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein. More recently, I have become immersed in the work of Elizabeth Green and more specifically the notion that we need to move away from the vicious ‘accountability vs. autonomy’ arguments that permeate the discussions surrounding education reform today.
One may be wondering where all of this incredible passion comes from. Over three years ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as one of the 17% of applicants accepted into Teach For America’s 2012 corps, and was subsequently placed at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Although there have been many emotionally draining and stressful occurrences over the course of the past three years, my experience working in Newark has shown me the potential our astonishing students really have. I think of my many students who are first generation immigrants, excelling at school while struggling to learn a language and grow accustomed to a new culture that is so very different from the one in which they have grown up. I think of students like Melissa, a junior who is poised to become the first person in her family to attend college, and has led the Robotics team to the first ever district finals. And then I think of students like Austin, a senior that has become like a little brother to me, who, through unimaginable stress and tremendous adversity, has persevered and risen to the top of his class, being named Salutatorian while being elected President of the Student Council and serving as captain of the varsity soccer team. Austin has also won some of the most competitive scholarships (including the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholarship and the NHL’s Thurgood Marshall Scholarship) while being offered admittance into some of the most elite universities our country has to offer (including Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell). And they have all done well in part because of the opportunities they have had while attending East Side High School.

East Side is the largest high school within the governance of the Newark Public Schools. It is one of the few Newark high schools with high demand as enrollment has skyrocketed over the course of the past three years due to more families wanting to enroll their children at East Side High School. As a designated Title 1 School, 81.9% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, 15% of students are classified with special needs, and 18.3% are English Language Learners (Source: The New Jersey Department of Education state report card for East Side High School). While our school has had and will continue to face many difficult and sensitive challenges in the road ahead, one thing that no one can argue is which direction East Side is headed. As many “Data-Driven” educational leaders would say, let us look at the data. Star-Ledger Reporter Naomi Nix has recently put forward that, “the share of students considered proficient in language arts increased from 67 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 79 percent during the 2013-2014 school year, while the number of students considered proficient in math has increased from 63 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 75 percent during the 2013-2014 school year.”

It sure seems as though there are many great things going on at East Side High School. I am not sure anyone would consider East Side a great school – yet – but we are definitely in the process of becoming one. Any reasonably coherent person would see the overwhelming positive trajectory that East Side High School is on.

Which is exactly why our entire building – teachers, administrators, and students alike – were shocked to discover that the Newark Public Schools has designated East Side High School as a turnaround school for the 2015-2016 school year.
Huh?
When pressed with any possible rationale as to why a state-appointed administration would aim to turnaround one of the brightest beacons of hope in the Newark Public Schools, they responded with saying that the incoming 8th graders are achieving at a significantly lower rate than last year’s cohort, and it is those students that truly need to be “turned around.” I am not sure I follow this argument; if this is true, why not turn around the K-8 schools first? For me personally, I already get to school by 7:00 am and leave at around 5:00 pm everyday. If these reforms are to go through, I would lose about 90 minutes of daily lesson prep time (40 minutes from a shortened prep and 50 minutes from the extended school day) in addition to gaining a 6th class. Until what time does the Newark Public Schools want me to work? Do they want me to put in 12-hour days on a consistent basis? I need at least two hours to plan a highly effective lesson that is culturally relevant and engaging for our students. This is in addition to all of the extremely important extracurricular activities, extra help, and empowering conversations that I have with students on a daily basis. I am worried that I will burn out even earlier next year, and that I will not be as mentally ready to give it my all during class day-in and day-out.

This past Saturday, in protest of this decision, our school community held an inspirational #WeAreEastSide rally to showcase some of the great things that are going on at East Side High and to highlight everything that would be lost if these changes go through. As our fearless principal Dr. Mario Santos has said, “East Side has been on a road to greatness and the results have shown it! The key ingredient of any great school is great teachers, and my focus and my goal is not to lose any great teachers. The term turnaround…can affect that. Obviously, I don’t want to lose any great teachers.” As our vice principal (and TFA alumna) Meg Murray said during the rally, “East Side IS a turnaround; we are a great school and constantly getting better!”
At the #WeAreEastSide rally 
I worry that some of our educational leaders have lost touch with reality, and that we are starting to lose focus of the bigger picture. I resonate strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times, which put forward the notion that improving our schools is essential, but at what cost? While working in an inner-city school for the past three years, I agree with him that we must “support education reform. Yet the brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.”
Our principal Dr. Santos speaking at the #WeAreEastSide rally
To my peers and fellow educators: let us keep showing the world what Newark and East Side High School is capable of doing. Let us keep pushing ourselves to improve our craft and become the very best teachers that we can be. And let us keep up with the biggest responsibility we have – to pass down knowledge onto the next generation of leaders while preparing them for the dynamic and globally connected world that is the 21st century.
And to the Newark Public Schools: as a Teach For America alum, I want to be on your team. I want to believe in what you stand for, but it has become increasingly difficult to support a vision that completely decimates our public schools. I share in your resolve to make the Newark Public Schools a great school district, but I promise you that “turning around” East Side High School would do nothing more than de-stabilize the most stable comprehensive public high school that Newark has to offer. If the turnaround designation stays, many of our best teachers will choose to leave the district in large droves. The fallacy with many of these reforms is that the best teachers – “The Irreplaceables,” as they are often called – will have opportunities in other districts, and that only the worst teachers will be stuck in the Newark Public Schools. At the Partner’s for Excellence reception the district held earlier in the year, district leaders declared how we as a district must do everything we possibly can to retain our highly effective teachers, yet the actions of the district seemingly advocate for the exact opposite. I worry that if these reforms go through and there is a mass teacher exodus as expected, it will take at least a decade to restore the school to anything faintly resembling East Side as we know it today. I urge the district to reconsider this turnaround designation, and instead give our instructional leaders worthwhile professional development that will truly improve our pedagogy. I lobby for new teacher coaches so that my colleagues and I can continue to grow as educators, which will help our students far more than simply extending the school day by an hour.  And please allow for an open and honest dialogue with the people that have the biggest impact on student achievement and the ones who are fighting on the front lines every single day – your teachers.
To close, I must ask: Are we creating conditions in our urban schools such that our best teachers leave and our worst teachers stay? Does urban education go too far when it does more to drive away the irreplaceable teachers to other districts or professions than to keep them in the classroom? And when will we learn that education reform must be done WITH schools and communities and not TO them?
As for me, I still have tremendous hope for our future. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or a hopeless romantic, but I am a teacher because I fundamentally believe that education has the power to change the world. I know that our schools can do better and that many things in the K-12 system need to change. But is there a point when education reform goes too far?

Making a Difference the Starfish Way

     For this post, I want to share a letter I wrote for The Circle (the student newspaper of Marist College) during my last week as Student Body President. It addresses the concept of “making a difference:” 

     Last summer, I had the privilege of attending freshmen orientation and meeting the Marist Class of 2015 before their first day of college. Everyday began with an amazing video put together by the First Year Programs staff that helped give the newest members of the Marist community an idea of what college was all about. The video ended with a few lines that read, “Life doesn’t last forever. Neither does college. Make the best of both. Make a difference at Marist.”
     But what does “make a difference” exactly mean? For those who know me well, they would say I am a big believer in the “Starfish Poem.” In short, the “Starfish Poem” talks about how everyone can make a difference to the world, no matter how big or how small that difference may be [note: see below for a full text of the poem]. The idea is that, if everyone helps out a little, we can accomplish a lot as a whole. I think this poem relates perfectly back to our students and Student Government.
     You see, people often think that you need to win a major election or have a big, fancy title to make a difference. Don’t get me wrong: Student Government, in my opinion, has done some amazing things this year. From Zip Cars to the emergency texting notification systems, new ATMs around campus to discounted taxi rides; I feel that we have done a lot to push Marist forward. Truthfully, though, these aren’t the “differences” that make Marist the place it is. The things I am talking about – the differences I see on a daily basis – are from the people who go out of their way to help another out in any way possible. These people stay up late to help their friend with a difficult assignment. These people help pick up a friend who is having a bad day. These are the people who make a difference at Marist every single day, and although they seldom get any recognition or credit for what they do, they are the people that make Marist a true community.
     In closing, I am extremely humbled and honored to have had the chance to serve as your student body president this past year. I want to thank all of the students, administrators, faculty, and staff that have helped me out so much this past year; I cannot thank you enough for everything you do for this school. And to all of my amazing friends –you all know who you are –you personally have made a difference to me in more ways than you probably know. I am going to miss Marist College immensely when I graduate in a short 8 weeks, but the memories and friendships I have made here will last forever. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read this, God Bless and Go Red Foxes!

The Starfish Poem

Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing.
He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day he was walking along the shore.
As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer.
He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day.
So he began to walk faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?”
The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Why, throwing starfish in the ocean.”
“I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?”
The boy responded, “You see, the sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
The confused man thought for a second, and replied, “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish, and said “for this one,” as he threw another starfish into the sea,
“It made a difference.”