My first year teaching, I was fresh out of college, a graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Having completed my student teaching in high-performing elementary schools in Manhattan, I entered the Title I public middle school where I began my career with certain expectations. I expected students to have ample access to technology, including well-equipped classrooms with Smartboards or document cameras. I expected students to have textbooks and curricula that were current and relevant. Finally, I expected students to have access to a full range of special education and support services, such as counselors, speech and language providers, social workers and physical therapists. What I soon found out was that these expectations were luxury items to my Title I students, far from anyone’s grasp. Most classrooms had books from years, or even decades, before. Forget Smartboards—most classrooms only had chalkboards. We had one working computer lab for more than 1,000 students, and teachers fought over the one working desktop from which to print lessons or resources for their students. Special education and support services were far from plentiful, with educators teaching classes for which they were not certified, and students receiving related services on an inconsistent basis, if ever. Over the course of the next few years, some of these areas improved, but the school did not have the ongoing support to maintain improvements. If a classroom received technology, and that technology broke, it would likely not be fixed for months, sometimes even for the rest of the school year. New books were ordered, and then the curriculum requirements set forth by the city or state were changed. Special educators were hired, but could not be retained, and then were never replaced. If a special education service became available, the provider’s schedule would become flooded, and a second provider was rarely hired to balance out the workload and meet the needs of the students receiving the service. As a result, some students who needed counselors or social workers or speech and language providers never received these legally-mandated services. After my fifth year at this school, I decided to move from the neighborhood I lived in, so I sought a teaching job closer to my new home. I moved to central Queens, and began the next step of my career at a non-Title I public elementary school—the one in which I am currently teaching. The difference between my new school in Queens and former school in Brooklyn is like day and night. Every classroom has a document camera or Smartboard and a color printer. Every educator has a laptop. All students, from kindergarten to grade 8, receive technology class weekly, with use of new Mac Air laptops and access to a 3-D printer. Curriculum is new and relevant, and brand-new textbooks are ordered yearly or as-needed. There is a full range of special education and support services available to all students, with certified educators and providers. Across three different boroughs of one single city, I have witnessed the clear-cut inconsistencies of public school funding.
Zip code should not determine a student’s access to a quality education that will prepare them for college and a career. Yet, it seems to. If we want to continue to support all children, we cannot give up on those who need it the most. Congress is at a pivotal moment in history—with an opportunity to overhaul the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act that has been governing our nation’s public schools for 50 years. This is an opportunity to hold all cities and states accountable for all zip codes, from wealthy areas to those in poverty. By passing a bill that keeps increased funding in the schools with the highest need, and maintains that those funds are spent purposely and equally from year-to-year, Congress will move one step closer to closing the equity gap in our nation’s public schools.
Lexie Woo is a fourth-grade special educator at PS 49 in Queens, New York, a fellow with the Literacy Teachers Initiative at Institute for Urban and Minority Education, and New York Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.