"This is a garbage school"

"This is a garbage school." The boy was a second grader or third grader. I wasn't sure. Although I knew two of his brothers, I didn't know him by name. He was leaning against the playground fence when he said this.

"No, it's not. Don't say that," I said instinctively.

"Yeah, it is." He insisted. "The kids here don't have no respect and they always cursing." He had a genuine look of consternation as he said this. I didn't point out to him that I had seen his younger brother running around the hallway earlier that day, and had heard stories of him cursing out adults. And while I found his statements ironic, they've stayed with me.

How does the way teachers, students, and families feel about a school impact the learning that happens inside it?

This is my second year teaching at one of New York City's Renewal Schools. Renewal Schools are selected based on low academic achievement and other indicators of poor performance. In response they receive extra attention. Some of this feels supportive, some of this feels burdensome.

In any case, I am at a school with a long history of bad test scores and bad headlines.

But, I want to believe that this can change.

I wonder what it will take though. Over the past 14 months, I have heard kids, families, and teachers characterize our school in one way or another as "garbage." I wonder if we can turn the concept of our school around through academic results, or do we need to turn the concept around first to yield better academic results.

To ask this another way, does the second grader feel a license to run around because he attends a "garbage school," or does he feel like it is a "garbage school" because he's able to run around?

Whatever the answer, I know that our students deserve to feel pride in their school. So, how do we change their perception? In a sense we are trying to weave an entirely new school culture, but this is difficult in a place that sometimes feels like it's collapsing under the weight of low academic achievement, intergenerational poverty, and trauma. But, nobody said this work would be easy.

I think this work begins by making sure the adults in our building really see kids as kids. When kids don't feel seen, or heard, it degrades their sense of worth and belonging. On the other hand if we can listen to kids more, center their voices, their knowledge, and their culture in our teaching, they might feel empowered and affirmed.

At the same time, the boy described a "garbage school" as a place where kids run wild. So, I think it is important to set limits. Kids want to be heard, but at the same time if they feel like they can do whatever they want, it sends a message that adults are apathetic. Whether it's old-fashioned consequences or a more restorative approach, some sense of rules and boundaries are essential to creating a school where kids are proud to go.

More important than expectations around behavior however are expectations around learning. At our school we talk about "dedication to excellence." This is language that resonates with me deeply. However, we clearly have a ways to go to instill this in our students. Hopefully if they receive the message that their learning matters, and effort is rewarded, they will feel a greater sense of pride.

In order to get kids to give their best effort however, we must give them learning experiences to care about. Worksheets and rote tasks will kill a person's curiosity and love of learning. Kids need a chance to explore, investigate, build, and question in a context that is meaningful to them. As adults, we also have to show that kids' learning matters to us. There must be opportunities for us to showcase our own curiosity and love of learning. And we must celebrate our kids' journey at every step of the way.

At the center of our work is not just improving instructional outcomes. What we are trying to build is a community. Our kids should feel invested in their school, that their school represents them and vice versa. I've described how to do this in a somewhat abstract way, but for now these our my best thoughts about how we might transform our kids vision of their school from "garbage" to something they treasure.


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