Separate & unequal schools in New York City

BY LENORE SKENAZY   |  What’s it like to be a substitute in the New York City public schools?

That’s not what Elizabeth Rose’s new book, “Yo Miz!,” is about. It’s about what it’s like to be a sub at 25 New York City public schools over the course of one year.

The songwriter and playwright had been teaching at the same school for 10 years — Vanguard, on East 68th St. — and loving it. But then came a Dept. of Education edict regarding about 2,500 “excessed” teachers — teachers not fired, but whose school no longer had a paid position for them. What becomes of a teacher without a school?

Rose’s cohort was to be churned through the system: Substituting a week at a time at school, after school, after school. Rumor had it that this was supposed to drive them so crazy, they’d all quit — which is something Rose considered. 

But then she re-considered. Outsiders aren’t generally allowed into the schools. Here was her chance. 

“It was,” she decided, “irresistible.”

And so began a year that swung from inspiring to infuriating on pretty much a weekly basis. 

Her first placement, Baruch High School, was filled with students eager to study the Code of Hammurabi and what makes for a just punishment. It’s the kind of place most of us wish our kids could go — but only about 450 of the brightest of the bright get in.

This deployment was quickly followed by one at an unscreened school on the Lower East Side where Rose was thrown into chemistry class — she’s an art teacher — and threatened with assault. One student had a gang insignia tattooed on his face. 

Stints followed at the High School of Fashion Industries, a buzzing hive of creativity with student’s handiwork draped on dress mannequins. Then there was a week she spent guarding an unused door in a fetid hallway at another school. The principal screamed at her when she requested a bathroom key. From the students to faculty, everyone looked beaten down. 

There was another week at a high-energy graphic design school where students worked on the latest video editing equipment. And then came a week at a school in Washington Heights where she was put in charge of the art class.

Here the supplies all fit into one cardboard box: A bunch of colored pencils. 

“They all needed sharpening,” says Rose. And naturally, “someone had run off with the sharpener.”

Someone had also run off with any kind of leadership. Rose learned that she was there only so the school could claim its students had fulfilled their art class credit. 

“It was a scam.”

She took a deep breath and decided it would at least be a week worth remembering. 

“Take out your pens,” she told the class. “We’re doing self portraits. What is your most interesting feature? Exaggerate it.”

A table full of boys refused. 

“They said, ‘No, this is whack.’ ” 

So Rose went to the white board and started drawing them. This enraged the boys. What right did she have? They retaliated by drawing her — and not kindly. But she had the last laugh.

They were drawing.

The next day Rose brought in some art supplies from home. The next day, some more. On the last day, however, she brought in Oreos instead, and announced, “Today we’re going to do an art project.” 

Her assignment? Write on the white board all the things they thought an art class should have. 

Paper! 

Paint! 

Field trips! 

“We Deserve a Great Art Class!” Rose scrawled at the top of the board. Then she gathered the students in front of the board, backs to the camera for legal purposes, and told them they could make whatever gesture seemed appropriate. 

It’s a gesture you’ve seen on the highway when you cut somebody off.

The picture summed up Rose’s outrage and what she hopes will be ours, too: How can a school of 600 young people have no art supplies in the creative capital of America? How can some kids never go on a field trip when they live just a few subway stops away from one of the greatest art museums in the world? How can some schools have video editing equipment, or discussions about Hammurabi, and others have dank halls, screaming principals, and just one week of art? 

“Once you meet these kids, you’ll feel how much you want them to have a chance at success,” says Rose. 

Feeling it. 

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

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