Excerpt from The Academy of Environmental Science. The Department of Education had loosened the guillotine. They were closing the school for low achievement – even though it had shown improvement. Although, at first glance, it seemed like a chaotic place, I was amazed at the depth of environmental teaching and learning in this so-called “failing” school. Oh yeah — their teacher happens to be a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency!
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
As I enter the school for my second day, the office ladies are carrying out a spirited conversation in Spanish.
“Hola. Como estan?” I say and they warm up to me. The main secretary, who seems to run the place, starts speaking in Spanish to me but I can’t follow her.
“OK. I’ll teach you a few words while you’re here this week,” she offers. “Meanwhile, the principal wants you to monitor the halls today. You can go ahead and sit in that chair at this end of the hall, right next to the computer lab.”
“I’ll be happy to,” I tell her, thinking I can work on my TV pilot. I’m going to need a one-pager.
The hall resounds with a deafening electronic noise. I’m sitting right underneath the bell. Earplugs in! Stat. Students burst, file and mosey out of classrooms. I forget my one-pager and monitor their behavior. Slapping. Kissing. Hugging. Chasing. Yelling. Sub-hoodie moping. Girls with boys. Boys with boys. Pants sagging below thighs. Corkscrews of hair extensions held with ribbons or bouncing below shoulders. A girl sporting polka-dotted leggings covered by a lacy ballet tutu. Cell phones surgically attached to ears.
“Guys. No cell phones, please,” I remind them as they dance by me. No matter. I’m an invisible stranger in a hard chair.
“Make sure you don’t let anybody into the computer lab,” the secretary says to me after most of the kids are secure in their next class. “Come on, Jeremy! Go to class!” she hollers after a hoodie. She turns back to me authoritatively. “Nobody is allowed in the computer lab without a teacher.” She heads into the staff ladies room.
The day goes by uneventfully. When it’s quiet, I walk over to the closest bulletin board. It’s filled with pictures and narrative about a class trip to the shore. The class studied the flora and fauna, took water samples, brought them back to class and analyzed the water for different pollutants. There are charts with levels, pictures and student narratives. I am very impressed.
The gray-haired, professorial science teacher whose class outing was canceled yesterday emerges from the office, right next to the bulletin board.
“Is this your class?” I ask him.
“Oh, yes. That was our unit on how pollutants affect our shoreline.”
“It’s really interesting,” I say. This bulletin board could be hanging in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. This is high-level academics, way above most expectations for an inner city science class in a “failing” school.
“I’m a consultant to the EPA,” he says. “I get our kids involved in as many hands-on projects as possible. I was really upset we couldn’t go out yesterday.”
You walk into a school in the middle of el barrio. The school is closing. You don’t expect much.
Then you see a bulletin board that kind of blows you away. You realize you have a lot to learn: about water pollution and about your own expectations. A motivated teacher with a supportive administration can open doors of exploration for kids who rarely travel below 96th Street. Curiosity develops. Lives change.
So why are they closing this place??
Photo credits: That’s me…Elizabeth Rose – and yes, that’s the bulletin board I got to create in the halls.