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[xmca] a teacher's resignation
I recently completed my dissertation that focused on a six grade teacher and her amazing multimedia curriculum in an elementary school in Newark, NJ. I found the school to be a story of success - illustrating what is possible when teachers (and students) are given the freedom to bring their passion and creativity into the classroom. Unfortunately her letter of resignation below reflects an all too familiar story of education in urban America.
Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education
The College of New Jersey
2000 Pennington Road
Ewing, NJ 08628
To: Secretary Arne Duncan
CC: Commissioner Lucille Davey
Dr. Clifford B. Janey
Mayor Corey Booker
June 13, 2009
Dear Secretary of Education Duncan,
Very recently, I resigned from the Newark Public School System
after almost 10 years. The conditions under which I left deserve
specific attention, as the implementation of No Child Left Behind at
the federal, state and local level is failing Newark’s children.
As I am sure you are aware, Secretary Duncan, NCLB was passed into
legislation in 2001, under George Bush’s presidency. Had he understood
the term, I would have guessed he was being ironic, touting education
legislation, since the former president had every academic opportunity
available to him and still emerged unable to negotiate object and
The target populations of NCLB are underserved populations, mainly
communities of color. As we all know, George Bush authorized more
executions in his 8 years as Texas governor than the other 49 states
since the death penalty was reinstated under states’ rights in 1976.
Again, targeted mainly at communities of color. I’m not a politician,
but considering these two factors, I wouldn’t even hire George Bush to
monitor recess for kindergarten, much less trust him to enact
legislation that affects public education for the whole country.
A cursory look at NCLB shows that the authors either don’t know
any children or don’t like them. Missing from the text are words like
fun, joyful and play. I saw very little that proposed innovative
teaching methods to make school a place where students actually wanted
to be. Many politicians say they don’t like NCLB, but thank God, they
claim, it pointed out the discrepancy between race and class and public
education. This, I’m willing to bet, was pointed out for the longest by
teachers, parents, Parent-Teacher associations, and unions and
federations working on behalf of teachers.
I want to share my experience with you, since for 8 years, I had
the unique experience of working under the leadership of a principal,
Mr. Leonard Kopacz, who focused on creating an institution that served
the needs of our students and their families in spite of NCLB. Here’s
the kicker: we were never in compliance, but we were an extremely
successful school and our test scores improved during those 9 years,
raising our scores from the bottom 3% in 1999 to an average 10% higher
than the Newark Public School city average on the GEPA in 2007.
Thirteenth Avenue School, located in the West Ward of Newark, New
Jersey, is surrounded by the most dire conditions of poverty. Drug
abuse, gangs, and theft is rampant and many of my sixth grade students
over the years had witnessed homicides, lost family members, lived in
homeless shelters, under the terror of physical and sexual abuse, or in
a temporary foster care situation. Despite all of this, our kids and
their parents were some of the kindest, most generous, loving people I
have had the honor of meeting. They want their school to achieve, they
want their children to learn, to be disciplined, to be successful young
Under Mr. Kopacz’s administration, our school, The Pride, was a
close knit community. We had one of the highest attendance rates in the
district, and teachers didn’t mind the extra work required, that is
always required, because we understood that our boss had our back and
was going to give us the resources we needed to do our jobs. You know;
teach. This is in spite of the fact that we also suffered the same
circumstances of many inner city schools: lack of resources, external
conditions beyond our control, overpaid and underqualified staff who
just showed up to collect a paycheck. But we did it, and we did it
Under the leadership of Mr. Kopacz, my colleagues and I took our
children on educational, field trips to reward good behavior. The sixth
grade, was out of the classroom at least 8 times a year, which gave the
students an incentive to behave and try to do their work. I mention
this, because despite the abundance of research available stating that
taking students out of the classroom improves classroom behavior and
performance, Newark has recently implemented a laborious, time
consuming, dopey process that can only be construed as a tactic to
discourage teachers from taking their students out all together.
I planned only two trips last year, and despite faxing the information
back and forth no less than four times, the Board failed to provide us
with a bus to go to the Museum of Natural History. I stood in the lobby
for half an hour with 30 students and four parents who took off work to
chaperone during one of the worst economic crises of our time.
Under the leadership of Mr. Kopacz, I was able to develop a
literacy through photography program funded mainly through grants that
I received. Mr. Kopacz often found funds to assist in these endeavors.
This curriculum incorporated art, technology, literacy, communication
skills and was the NCLB f word, fun Students in the lower grades
couldn’t wait to get to 6th grade a partake in this project that
evolved over an 8 year time frame. This year, it essentially fell
apart, along with the school. Just to give you an idea of a small but
fundamental problem, the Board couldn’t come up with a class schedule
that was “in compliance” and changed it no less than 4 times in the
first 5 weeks of school.
Under the leadership of Mr. Kopacz, my colleagues and I took our
students on field trips to art galleries in New York City and Central
Park. Under the leadership of Mr. Kopacz, my colleagues and I were able
to found and run a drama club for students between the ages of 9 and 12
that added to the morale of our school community. Under the leadership
of Mr. Kopacz, our classes had cook outs in the community garden he
established in our court yard, (featured in a program on PBS). Under
Mr. Kopacz, after school programs flourished, and our children were
exposed to various guest speakers and presentations. They attended New
Jersey Performing Arts Center at least once a year. Our students
enjoyed actor and artist residencies. School work adorned the walls and
was updated frequently. Our hallways were safe and quiet. Our students
were civil and respectful, and in most cases happy.
Half of the reason for our success was a no tolerance disclipline
policy. You put your hands on someone, you were out. You disrupted
class, you were out. Additionally, Mr. Kopacz, unlike the
administration following him, had the genius to understand that if a
student was sent to him, maybe we, the teachers, just needed a break.
And maybe that student needed to write down some times tables and have
a stern, but fair discussion with the principal.
Suspensions and a no tolerance policy is effective for two
reasons. The student either learns a lesson and comes back
understanding the relationship between actions and consequences or, if
that student is beyond what can be expected in terms of discipline from
the classroom teacher, that student is not in the classroom taking away
instructional time from everyone else. That student needs special
Unfortunately, our school didn’t receive any funding from NCLB for
a counseling initiative beyond the one social worker who had a magical
relationship to time and managed to end the day accomplishing actually
nothing and the one guidance counselor, who had to pick up all the
slack from the social worker, who were employed at our school to assist
these students. Fortunately, the crisis counselor saw the need for a
mental health wellness clinic in our school and with the help of a
former teacher at our school, raised most of the funding for it. Dr.
Janey later allocated some funds, but it has been by and large a
This year, suspensions were curtailed drastically. Instead, we
were expected to write incident reports, because we have so much time
to fill out sheets that ask for irrelevant information. And that are
never followed up on. And waiting two, three, or even four days before
addressing an incident in the classroom really sends a message, if the
incident is addressed at all.
So, our discipline policy was destroyed, letting the problematic
students know there was no ramifications whatsoever. Graffiti started
appearing all over the walls. Fights occurred in the hallway, in the
streets after school, in the cafeteria. I personally pulled apart two
young men who were fighting in the street in front of the principal who
did nothing about it. When I left, gangs were congregating in larger
and larger groups outside the building after school, and picking fights
with our often younger students. Female teachers were attacked in two
instances, and nothing was done. The Newark Police started visiting the
While discipline was thrown out the window, so was rewarding good
behavior. Field trips were close to impossible to organize, teachers
were expected to pay for all kinds of incentives, and told they
wouldn’t be reimbursed, and often, there was no monitor in the lunch
room, so lunch just became a kind of free for all chaotic mess. Mr.
Kopacz always insured there were rewards, from radios, to bicycles, to
other kinds of gifts that kids who work hard in this environment
deserve. Our students never even met the new principal since he was
often pulled out of the school to go to meetings to discuss stuff that
didn’t really matter anyway.
While our school was visibly going down the drain, the Board, I
guess, was too busy revamping our school structure, or what had been
successful for 8 years, with revolutionary ideas like having the
writing teacher be the same as the reading teacher, which now required
one person to get students three to four years below grade level up to
NCLB requirements. Previously, I was the writing teacher, and my
colleague was the reading teacher, and that was a huge reason why our
students excelled and improved like they did.
I could honestly write another 6 pages alone on how the food
supplied and paid for by the state was I am sure, in violation of some
human rights amendment somewhere, but I’m sure that’s evident in the
high rates of disease and obesity evident in those communities. Or you
could watch SuperSize Me.
Teaching was an incredible part of my life, and because I was an
excellent teacher, I learned a lot from the families of Newark. They
deserve educational institutions second to none, it’s amazing that in
the year 2009 the educational discrepancy in this country is still
alive and kicking.
Tracey Noelle Luz
Lauren found her dream laptop. Find the PC that’s right for you.
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