New York City’s Public Education System

In global studies class, I used to roll my eyes at a poster that said, “Learn history because history repeats itself.” I thought the reason was dumb because it failed to convince me that learning history was useful. But, I swallowed my resentment towards the class and studied hard because I wanted a 99.9 average so I could get into one of the Ivy Leagues.

It was not until my second year in high school that I began to develop a bit of a liking towards social studies. Don’t get me wrong, I did not become a fan of the subject. I just developed a more of a respectful type of liking towards it because of how dedicated my history teacher, Ms. Heenan, was. She was a blonde, petite woman in her late 20s, who had short, straight hair about one inch below her ears.

There were various occasions when her words, actions, and attitude struck me of how “perfect” of a teacher she was. She fit all my standards of what a great teacher should be like: someone who cared about her students, someone who liked or loved the subject she taught, and someone who went beyond her required responsibilities to teach her students.

At the beginning of the semester, she returned the results of our first test back to us and said we needed to improve our writing skills. She said our performance on the essay part of the test was poor. She then devoted an entire class to teach us the fundamentals of writing a good essay, something that an English teacher was supposed to do. It was also the first time out of my nine years of education that a teacher taught me how to write a proper essay and this teacher wasn’t even my English teacher. Yes, that was the education I got at Bronx Science, one of the few so-called specialized high schools in New York City.

As that semester passed by, it was clear to everyone who was flunking the class because they rarely showed up to class. This girl who almost never came to class decided to show up one day. Ms. Heenan approached her and requested that they speak outside the room. As soon as they left the room, everyone immediately shut their mouths and sharpened their hearing abilities. We wanted to hear every heated confrontation that would come up in their conversation.

It went something like this: “…you’re barely passing. I just want you to know that I didn’t give you that grade. You gave it to yourself. You need to come to class. Do the work. Study for the tests. You still have many opportunities to do well…[list of examples]”

Ms. Heenan didn’t have to say that to her. She didn’t have to talk to the student who could care less about passing the class. But she did. She cared. And so the student reciprocated and she started to care too. I can’t say that she received a 99.9 average in that class like I did but she did start coming to class and she did work harder.

To give us incentives to learn about global history outside of the classroom, Ms. Heenan gave extra credit assignments that entailed visiting museums. I decided my anticipated 99.9 average was not good enough and that I should strive for an 100 average to secure my ticket to Harvard University. So, I did some of the extra credit assignments.

The assignments were not easy. You had to do more than drag your butt to Manhattan and look at the works in the museum because we had to answer questions about the works. They were not just factual questions, they were analytical questions, and sometimes they would reflect the materials that Ms. Heenan was teaching us.

Because of the assignments, I learned that the illegal drug, opium, came from poppy flowers. That day, I dragged my butt to Guggenheim Museum and was frantically looking for all the artworks listed in the extra credit assignment so I can leave the museum to study for my chemistry exam.

Then, I came across a picture of these pretty, colorful flowers. It depicted a field of poppy flowers in India and workers harvesting them. Then, I looked at the question that Ms. Heenan wrote which was “What benefits do you think Great Britain had when they grew poppy flowers in India?” At the time, we were learning about the Opium Wars so I knew that Britain was selling opium to the Chinese and growing them at a nearby land would be more cost efficient.

Answering Ms. Hennan’s extra credit questions and visiting the museums in New York City made me realize how much she enjoyed teaching history and learning more about it at the same time. She didn’t treat her job as a job that just paid her bills. She was teaching because she liked it. She took time to compose questions that not only taught us facts but also stimulated our critical thinking abilities. She could have easily gave us extra credit assignments that cost her very little time to make and grade. Afterall, teachers are not required to give extra credit assignments.

One day, someone asked her why she decided to become a teacher. She told us that she decided in college when she took a history class. She said bells in her head rang “ding ding ding,” and her brain told her that “this was it” that she wanted to be a history teacher.

After having her as a teacher and witnessing her dedication, I became less hostile towards learning history. I still had my bad days with it. But today, I appreciate the value of history.

In 2010, Mayor Bloomberg and the then Chancellor Klein announced that “New York City’s four-year high school graduation rate rose to an all-time high of 63 percent in 2009.” But is 63% enough? What about the other 37 % that do not graduate? What about each high school? There are some high schools that have a graduation rate of less than 50 percent. So half of the entering class will not graduate and will not have a high school diploma.

Currently, the higher-ups in New York City are making budget cuts in various areas and our public education system is one of them. Schools are getting shut down, teachers are being laid off and students attending these schools are unaware of what institution will replace their current one. New York City’s public education system is not in great shape. Sure, some schools are great but what about the ones that are not? Do we ignore them because we won’t send our kids to those schools? Why should we even care about other people’s kids? If they attend bad schools, who cares? That’s their problem. Right?

I hope that the low salary, unmotivated students and the budget cuts will not derail people who want to teach from becoming teachers. As a First World country that takes pride in “having some of the best colleges and universities in the world, where more students come to study than any place on Earth (says President Obama),” U.S.A. should move forward and not backward.

And, moving forward is not when the average graduation rate is on the rise but that each student’s graduate rate is on the rise.

The last time I heard about Ms. Heenan was that she got married and is no longer teaching at Bronx Science. It is unfortunate that Bronx Science lost a great teacher but perhaps she’s now teaching at a school where there is a greater need for better teachers, like Stuyvesant.

Writer’s Note: Since this blog entry was composed from my recollections, I apologize in advanced if any part of it is flawed. My memory is deteriorating and I had no other sources to verify my anecdotes except myself.

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