“I Can’t Forget Their Futures”

In the five years I taught in New Haven Public Schools, three of my students were murdered.

Kyshant Moore sometimes struggled academically at Bishops Woods School, but his smile lit up the room and he was loved by his teachers and classmates who were heartbroken when he transferred to Wexler Grant for his 8th grade year. On Jan. 15, 2011, I received word he had been struck and killed by a car while riding his bike across a snow-covered New Haven. He died in the middle of the night, abandoned by the car that hit him. It was later discovered that the driver had stolen the car, and that Kyshant was struck on purpose.

I remember Alyssiah Wiley as a quiet, but determined student when I student-taught her Honors Sophomore English class at Hillhouse High School. On May 17, 2013, her partial remains were discovered in the Trumbull woods. She was allegedly murdered by her longtime boyfriend. She was in her second year of college.

Javier Martinez was brilliant. He frustrated me in my first full year of teaching when he wouldn’t complete his homework, or spaced out in class.  Then I would read his poem, or he would raise his hand and share an insight that I had never considered and I would remember that there was more to him than his grades suggested. On Dec. 28 of last year, he was shot dead in the street.

I was connected to these students like I am to every student who enters my classroom, and I have mourned all three of them. Perhaps that is why the discourse that surrounds education, and particularly urban education remains surreal to me. We can discuss teacher evaluations, test scores, curriculum, Pearson, tiering of schools, and merit pay for as long as we want, but we are not even beginning to touch the conditions that resulted in these three students’ deaths. We are not addressing why so many of my young female students have opted to start families before their sophomore year of high school, or why some of my young male students have already begun the long cycle in and out of institutions before their 16th birthdays.

Why, as a society, are we so afraid to talk about poverty? About violence, neglect, and abuse? About joblessness and income inequality? Perhaps it’s because these problems seem so insurmountable. I can certainly understand that sentiment. But separating discussion of school performance from our larger societal problems falsely suggests that the two are not inextricably linked. Analyzing data instead of talking about our communities creates a safe distance between the academic performance of our students and the human lives at risk. And every article that dissects the current educational climate threatens to be a distraction from the real work we have to do as a community to protect our children.

I taught 7th and 8th grade at two K-8 schools in New Haven, and while both had sparkling new buildings, adequate technology, and revamped curriculum, both were vastly under-resourced when it came to counseling and social work. We can’t continue to shrug off these auxiliary services as a luxury. I would argue that strengthening these support services, along with better engaging parents and guardians as active members of the school community are among the two most important things NHPS could do to close the achievement gap.

I no longer teach in New Haven Public Schools, but I am still a teacher. And I can’t forget the students I met in New Haven. I can’t forget Kyshant and Alyssiah and Javier. I can’t forget their futures that might have been.

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posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 5, 2014  2:41pm

Excellent points, thanks for sharing.

It takes a village to raise a child, and until our villages are places that nurture children, our institutions will merely continue to reflect that failure, rather than have a meaningful impact on outcomes no matter how much money we throw at these institutions.

posted by: Paul Wessel on March 5, 2014  2:41pm

Thank you for this.

Both your piece and yesterday’s quote in “12th Graders Head Back To Middle School Math” from Andy Wright, a Career High School teacher:

“My math colleagues and I consider it appalling that 60-plus percent of New Haven high school graduates need remediation,” he said. “We have long been aware of this and have tried to figure out ways to address the real needs within the curricula we are supposed to teach.”

remind us of the profundity of a teacher’s challenge and how important your work is.

posted by: jeffrey a on March 5, 2014  9:42pm

I have been an educator in New Haven for the past 30 years. I have seen efforts to address social issues that our students often struggle with. One attempt that I feel met with a modicum of success was Social Development a curriculum based on the Comer model. It addressed issues of drugs, violence, self image, peer pressure and allowed teachers and students to discuss openly issues that they were struggling with. Today we have moved in the direction of accountability, and mastery looms heavy on the horizon. This new direction might provide positive changes in delivery of curricular matter.  However, the discussion about the students and their struggles has taken a back seat and I often wonder why. A child that struggles with neglect or abuse or whose parent or guardian has issues with alcohol or drugs is ignored until the issue becomes extreme. Where is the balance, where is the acknowledgement of the life issues that cloud the ability for any child to master the material?
I totally agree with Tara Ehler and the way she addressed the violence, the poverty, the neglect, the disfunction.
I propose that education not only address the academic side of our children but also the environment that holds them back.
Two weekends ago I was driving in upstate CT and happened to pass the Hotchkiss School, a sprawling campus in a rural setting with large brick- faced dorms and classrooms, where the wealthy can send their children so the struggles of the inner city public schools can’t affect their learning. Two worlds, two educational systems, one to maintain the status quo and one that is held together by dedicated people whose hands are tied and their voices muffled. How long will we remain silent, how long will we allow the illusionists to mask the truth?

posted by: Tom Burns on March 5, 2014  11:20pm

Thank you Tara—that is all of our travels as teachers in New Haven—we concentrate on subject matter—yet we never really deal with the WHOLE child—well that has to be our next challenge—to be the first in Urban Education to focus on Character, Deportment, Collaboration and ALL the soft skills which make a person a real self-actualized being—we should have done this long ago—but the stars are aligned and the time is now—thanks for your article—-Tom

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on March 6, 2014  4:58am

This article should be read by the BOE and the NHPS Superintendent before each meeting of that board. Indeed, it should be read by every urban school board and anyone else who tends or wants to forget that any education policy bent on improving the academic output of its students must take into account the reality of life that those students face and must often overcome outside of the classroom.

There is something morally eschew about a society that would punish teachers who cannot overcome their students’ academic challenges that are impacted by those students’ social reality but will not seek to address or even to admit that those realities majorly affect a student’s academiic potential.

Well, here it is.  A well written essay that forces us to face and to admit that merit pay, test scores, and “race to the top” school reform contest can never be successful while they ignore the social conditions of the very students whose lives depend on an intelligent consideration of school life and their lives outside of the school buildings.

Thank you Tara Ehler formthis gift of words and reason.

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee
The Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church
New Haven, CT

posted by: Teachergal on March 6, 2014  11:36am

Finally! Keep this conversation going!