In 1967, I went to live with my grandparents in Wyandanch to avoid a South Bronx high school that I knew would destroy my chances of going to college. I graduated from Wyandanch and went on to get a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
After teaching in and running an alternative high school, I approached the Wyandanch school district about teaching there, which meant so much to me. I was willing to take any teaching job, but I never heard back from district officials. So, I took a job in Harlem and spent the rest of my career there.
I’ve often wondered why I wasn’t offered a position in Wyandanch. I was seasoned, went to good schools, was an alum, and wanted nothing more than to help students like myself.
Fast-forward 48 years, and I have to ask again: Are the underperforming schools on Long Island doing all they can to recruit the most talented educators? Or are they caught up in petty feuds and maintaining the status quo? More important, are the needs of students coming first? Experience teaches me that it’s very hard to improve educational outcomes without a comprehensive plan. For the educators in charge of struggling schools, I would recommend the following:
1. Build a quality early-childhood program. The science on early brain development — starting at birth — is irrefutable.
2. Improve elementary instruction. Too many school leaders focus on the testing years of third through eighth grade. The evidence is clear: The earlier you intervene, the higher the likelihood of success. Problems in learning show up in kindergarten if you know to look for them.
3. Use data to ensure timely feedback. New York State’s annual tests for third- through eighth-graders tend to be useless to teachers. The tests are in April, the results arrive in the summer when the school year is over. Collecting and analyzing data, monthly at the latest, can give staff valuable information on student progress. These would enable educators to come up with a Plan B for students who are not where they need to be.
4. Recruit, acknowledge and support great teachers. Too many terrific teachers burn out, or decide they don’t want to stay in the profession. Teachers often feel unappreciated and undervalued. They mostly interact with the administration when there is a problem, especially in underperforming schools. School leaders often spend time worrying about curriculum, classroom schedules and the hundreds of issues that come into their offices, and forget to spend time on building esprit de corps, an honest values system and a connection to the mission.
5. Find great partners. Schools with an overrepresentation of poor students, new immigrants, or special-education students cannot do it all. It is imperative that schools connect with partners to fill in the gaps. Social service groups as well as after-school tutoring, sports and recreation organizations can add valuable supports and services.
6. Build strong community partnerships. Struggling schools should reach out to local businesses, colleges, alumni and residents to get involved. Students who have mentors, summer jobs and early college experiences have a better chance of success.
In 2018, there is no reason for Long Island to have schools that persistently fail. It’s time to raise the standards of student success. More than simply not failing students, schools need to ensure young people complete a post-secondary school or trade.
Schools fail when leaders don’t do their jobs. We must have leadership that has integrity, honesty and provides the resources and strategies to support struggling students. Every school on Long Island should do for poor students what Wyandanch High School did for me: Provide an opportunity to get a great education and have a successful career.
Geoffrey Canada, an educator and author, is president of the Harlem Children’s Zone.