Last week, I had the honor and privilege of attending a special presentation from the students of Satellite Academy Midtown High School, a transfer high school just south of Madison Square Garden. Two years ago, assistant principal Paul Melkonian told me he had a vision of getting his students overseas somewhere. (full disclosure: he’s my son’s godfather as per Catholic traditions) I wasn’t stunned, but I didn’t understand to what depths he’d take this project. With the unflinching approval of and collaboration with his principal, Melkonian started putting together his travel abroad project that would take his students to Costa Rica and, as of this year, South Africa.
Through different supports across the city, including the right people from in and out of the NYC Department of Education coming together, these students who the system seemingly discarded got a second chance to prove their doubters wrong. That’s why alternative high schools matter.
That’s also why, whenever I advocate for great schools, I believe we should start rebuilding from what the students who our system has failed. It’s the students we call “dropouts,” “failures,” and “rejects” that need to sit in panels, write white papers, and have photo opps with the cool kids in the glossy photos. We need to do right by all kids, but, when we only work through the average student, we don’t actually address the needs of all kids.
Sea change requires a shift in tectonic plates, right?
Our school system in recent times has tried to squeeze and prune college- and career-readiness out of our students so often that many of us lost sight of why we do this work. The students who wouldn’t function in a traditional, teacher-directed, modular classrooms get pushed out more readily because they intentionally or unintentionally refuse to conform. We keep pretending that, should we all simply sync all of our lessons, differentiate en masse, teach grit and resilience, assess by the minute, and follow the intention of the standards to the tee, we’ll have no problem bringing the achievement gap to nil.
That’s not how students work.
I’m a believer in my students, and I believer all my students can succeed in my classes without exception. I also recognize that I don’t believe every student will succeed in my class due to factors that are, unfortunately, out of my control. With this recognition, I’m not liberated. In fact, I double down on the idea that we need various pedagogies and environments so all students can succeed in a way that makes sense for them. Weekly, I hear one or two students who say they prefer another teacher’s style over mine, but my ego takes no hits because I’m cognizant that, at least, I’m happy they’re learning. (A few of my students prefer the worksheet-as-lesson life, contrary to your favorite education guru’s opinions). Instead of yelling at the students and berating them for not following my line of thinking, I acknowledge, learn, and keep advocating for them, too.
Because the work we’re doing is supposed to be student-centered, right?
The presentation had dancing, rapping, and a little poetry in the mix, all of those pieces performed well. As I saw student after tossed-aside student present their scientific findings for the onlookers at the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (after all, the students had to do the work to get there, and do more work once they got to their respective sites), I noticed how tightly they clenched their fists, fighting back tears of triumph.
Then I asked myself how many students get opportunities like these, and, unfortunately, not many.
When my students in my low-income, mostly Latino and Black-serving school go to high school, will their high schools have that sort of belief in them, see past their peccadilloes and love them for their unfiltered brilliance, or will the weight of our incapable institutions overwhelm them, consume them, presume them incapable? Will they get a second chance? I don’t have those answers because, despite our best estimates, we don’t know with great confidence.
We can only show them love at the moments we have them, and help them create safeguards that deter their worst detractors.
I’m always enamored with students who present their own knowledge, not as a regurgitation of what they expect adults to see from them, but of curiosities they’ve explored and theorized upon. But to see it with students who were too often told they had no other choice? It left an impression that’ll have me flying back into my classroom tomorrow.