Daunting challenges for Boston Public School teachers

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/23/daunting-challenges-for-boston-public-school-teachers/

Boston is the birthplace of our nation’s public education. The city’s public schools are comprised of 128 schools with 57,000 students. It is a diverse amalgam of 40 percent Hispanic, 35 percent black, 13 percent white, and 9 percent Asian students, representing over 100 different countries. The ratio of BPS teachers is 62 percent white, 21 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic. Although Boston is a vibrant and innovative city, 78 percent of students come from low-income households. We asked three BPS teachers for their perspectives on the challenges they face in their classrooms, and how they foster student achievement in difficult surroundings.

Roxbury civics teacher encourages the discouraged

When Gary Fisher was a sophomore in high school, his first history class was taught by an African-American teacher. What endeared him most about the class was that his teacher not only made the subject very interesting, but also challenged the students to question the status quo.

“I never had a black male teacher,” said Fisher. “That was the first thing that caught my eye. The second thing that caught my eye was that he gave it straight forward and from a perspective that I never got.”

Fisher eventually became a teacher, and has taught civics at the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury for 25 years. He is also one of the school’s representatives in the teacher’s union. Now, after taking his sophomore teacher’s admonitions to heart, Fisher challenges his own students, who are primarily black and Hispanic, to think outside the box and to learn their rights as American citizens.

“I look for the kids not only to think for themselves but to also best anticipate what would be best for their society and how to make changes for their children,” said Fisher. “A lot of them don’t get that. They are so willing to accept and sometimes yes, ignore, and that’s what’s the problem.”

With funding cuts for resources and a population of students who face challenging issues outside the classroom, Boston Public School teachers have many obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, they continue to work hard to get their students on track for achievement.

Fisher said he has been battling the district, which has been cutting school budgets. For instance, he is forced to teach his students with deteriorating seven to eight-year-old textbooks. “To them it’s about the money, to us it’s about the teaching.”

In addition to limited resources, Fisher says that often students must deal with tremendous hardships that are unusual for a thirteen or fourteen-year-old adolescents. For example, many students wear pins with images of people whom they know who have died. They also add little slogans on the pins to remember them.

“It get’s to a point were they see death so often that their mentality is unhappy,” said Fisher. “[The students start to believe] I can’t control it; I’m willing to accept it, and that’s why you see them doing crazy things on the street.”

In spite of these difficulties, Fisher encourages his students by showing them what they can achieve through a better understanding of the American system.

Dorchester ESL teacher overcomes negative stereotypes

At the Community Academy of Science and Health high school in Dorchester, Isaia Tselengidis (otherwise known as ‘Ms. T’), teaches both English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Arts (ELA) to students from all grade levels. Tselengidis is in her fourth year of teaching, and caters to a large Haitian student population who speak Haitian Creole and French. She was also once an ESL student herself, and is impressed by the progress her students are making.


Isaia Tselengidis in her classroom (Photo by Beth Treffeisen)

“I would never change the school population – ever,” said Tselengidis. She finds it difficult to understand the negative reactions she receives from people outside the city community. “[The students] are so unique, they are such good kids and it really bothers me that people automatically stick that stigma ‘oh you’re at a high school in Dorchester’.”

Tselengidis believes that many people impose low expectations on kids in general. She suggests that if they took the time to open childrens’ minds and hold them to a higher levels of achievement, the kids would rise to meet the goals that the adults set.

Tselengidis believes part of breaking the stigma attached to an inner city school is to ensure that community pride is built into the very core of her classroom. She hopes her students will in turn bring a more positive outlook into the surrounding neighborhoods.

A lack of parent involvement is another obstacle that many children in the school have to struggle with. Tselengidis understands the dynamic because she also came from a family of immigrants, and her parents worked long hours without speaking the language.

“It doesn’t meant that the parents don’t care, it just means that the parents might not have the time because they have to work to put food on the table, or they just don’t speak the language so the communication barrier is there,” said Tselengidis.

The high school also has many students who live in urban areas and who are confronted with violence or serious struggles at home. Tselengidis gives her cellphone number to her students in case of emergencies. She believes it is important to create a space at school in which students feel like they are loved and accepted at all times, no matter what they do. This environment is necessary because many times the children do not receive affirmation from anyone else in their lives.

“I’ve been through students that have no place to turn and they can sit and pour their hearts out to me,” said Tselengidis. “We can try and get them services and counseling and all sorts of stuff after that, but there is just this feeling of wanting to hug them.”

In addition to changing negative stereotypes, Tselengidis believes that offering kids sympathy and understanding are key factors in overcoming their language barriers.

Dudley Square math teacher finds new solutions for an old equation

It was not until Grace-Ann Smith, the Lead Math Teacher and Numeracy Coordinator at the City on a Hill Dudley Square Charter School, was in an advanced placement calculus during her senior year of high school, that she learned she had a passion for math. As a teacher, she now works to de-stigmatize the hard subject and make it accessible to all students.

Smith said, “Ninth graders tell me ‘Miss, I hate math’ and I go, ‘trust me, I hated math at your age too. My goal is to just convince you earlier than the 12th grade, which is when I stopped hating it’.”


Grace-Ann Smith, lead math teacher (Photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Smith has been teaching in Boston Public Schools for four years. This her third year at City on a Hill Dudley Square. Through the Boston Teacher Residency program, she spent one year at Fenway High School and then transferred as a special education math teacher at the BPS Harbor Pilot Middle School. In her present position as the lead math teacher at the City on a Hill Dudley Square, she teaches students from over a dozen different BPS schools. One of her biggest challenges is to help students from different levels of learning ability prepare for college.

“I love that I get to start from scratch and start with brand new freshman,” said Smith. “[I get to] build in the kind of thinking caps that I want from the beginning.”

The major difference Smith sees between being a district middle school teacher and a charter high school teacher is the structure of the classes and the curriculum. At the charter school, the school day is divided into five hour and five minute classes. The schedule is also longer, with the school day going from 8:00am – 3:30pm, with afterschool programs lasting until 4:30pm. Although the students come from the same neighborhoods as district schools, the biggest distinction Smith sees is that the charter school teachers maintain very high expectations for students, regardless of their backgrounds.

“The truth is that Boston is not an easy city to live in, so definitely a lot of our students come with tough pasts or hard situations or things like that,” said Smith. She believes that if every child is held to the same high standards, irrespective of their background, they will succeed, especially if the school provides adequate academic support.

The City on a Hill Dudley Square Charter School opened in 2013, and is a replica of the City on a Hill Circuit Street, in Roxbury. The school has been growing: this year it will have its first 11th grade, and next year it will have its first graduating class. It is part of the same network of City on a Hill Charter Schools that includes a New Bedford location as well.

Besides focusing on solid academics in the classroom, Sonya Pratt, the Principal of City on a Hill Dudley Square, is also building a strong citizenship and culture model at the school. In this way, she hopes to encourage students to give back to their communities.

“There are a lot of negative things that people can say about Dudley Square, but it is a really historic place that is really rich in the history of Boston and the history of African-Americans,” said Pratt. “And we need to celebrate that and talk about how being a school in Dudley can make this a place where people want to come and visit.”

This type of optimism and dedication was a common feature in each public school professional I interviewed. Their hard work and tenacity in the face of major challenges is a key reason why Boston schools perform so well when compared with other schools in the country.