Friday, January 06, 2012

Speaking Out About Achievement First High Schools

Bari L. Katz, former (founding) Director of Student Life at Achievement First Crown Heights High School:

In addition to being developmentally inappropriate for the age of our students, the school system was oppressive in other ways. I would receive phone calls from parents and families on a daily basis because they felt disrespected by AF leadership. Many parents felt the rules in the school were over the top and not beneficial to the “college preparatory mission” of the school. Many parents were called up to the school on a regular basis to have meetings with school administrators to address student discipline issues, often times even for minor infractions. Usually, students were not allowed to attend academic classes until these parent meetings happened (students in this situation would sit alone in a classroom or in the main office all day and independently do work assigned by their teachers even though they often couldn’t complete the work because they hadn’t received the lesson for the day. Perhaps because their shoes were 98% black instead of 100% black. For instance). Parents reported feeling devalued, disrespected, and frustrated by AF’s condescending approach to family involvement.

This leads me to my second concern about Achievement First’s proposed expansion. AF works in low-income communities of color in urban areas in New Haven, CT and Brooklyn, NY. From my experience, the mentality by many at the head of the organization and by association many of the school leaders as well, is one of disregard for the indigenous community they are entering. Rather than becoming a part of the neighborhoods in which they operate, AF most often runs schools that end up isolating the community in the surrounding area. Instead of valuing the parent and family contributions of their student body, many AF schools underestimate the power and capability of the families they are supposed to be serving. I always got the feeling that “we” were there to “fix a problem.” “We” were there to “save these kids.” The message to our students was often, “if you don’t do things ‘our’ way, you will never be successful in the ‘real world.’” As an organization working to serve urban populations, this kind of cultural insensitivity and sense of superiority are deeply harmful to the students, the families and the communities in which AF operates schools.

This is not about me. And I don’t want it to be about my experience. I left AF after my kids finished their ninth grade year for many reasons. I still speak to my kids and their families on a regular basis. When I left, half of the founding team left as well. By the start of the school’s second year, the 10th grade class (my kids) was down to a group of approximately 45-50. This year, the third year of the school, the founding class is down to around 35-40 students. This is the same trend in the AF high school in New Haven, which has graduated less than 30 kids the last two years (which they call a 100% graduation rate). I wanted to make sure that the voices of the families I’ve worked with for the last several years from AF Brooklyn High School were represented in this statement. They all asked me to keep their names confidential as they did not want their kids, some of whom still attend AF Brooklyn High School, to be penalized in any way for their speaking out.

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