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The challenge of reaching all young learners

New York Teacher
Karen Alford, talks to teachers at the UFT’s Early Childhood conference.
Miller Photography

Karen Alford (left), the UFT vice president for elementary schools, talks on March 22 to teachers Daniela Romano (center) and Esra Koc from PS 748 in Brooklyn during a break at the UFT’s seventh annual Early Childhood Conference, an event she organized.

Educational equity is a topic that is near and dear to early childhood educators. It is a subject that can never be exhausted because we can always learn more and do more to spur great educational outcomes for all of our students, regardless of where they start their educational journeys.

Beginning in September, with the influx of thousands of additional pre-K students into our school system, educators will have the opportunity to more fully address the needs of our youngest learners in our effort to give them the strong foundation they need to succeed.

The keynote speaker at our recent Early Childhood Conference, Dr. Mary Montle Bacon, has devoted her life to researching ways to close the achievement gap and reach all students. She also led two workshops, where she delved deeper into the topic and answered questions from educators about the challenges they encounter on the job.

“If you don’t understand the journey of those whom you serve, you can never become a culturally competent educator,” she told us. And it’s not simply about race or class or the culture of poverty; there are students who just “think differently,” she said. Some of the brightest children she’s encountered, she said, were in special education settings or juvenile detention centers, or struggling with drugs. Their entire way of being is different from that which our system rewards.

Our job is to help every learner. That entails figuring out ways to reach those students who are not successful in school. The longer they are in the school system, the more labels we attach to these children, in effect blaming them for their lack of success, Dr. Bacon said.

Educators told me they found Dr. Bacon’s workshop inspiring. “It opened my eyes and gave me new insights about how to work with a very diverse group of students, understanding that how I learned when I was young is different from how they learn now,” said Debbie Szeto, a paraprofessional at PS 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

“You think of new questions to ask your students and new ways of asking them when you hear someone like Dr. Bacon speak,” said Priscilla Ciscart, a paraprofessional in a kindergarten class at the Spruce Street School in Manhattan.

Noting the enormity of the challenge, Rose Licata, a kindergarten teacher at PS 7 in the Cypress Hills/East New York section of Brooklyn, said, “If you have 23 children in your class, you can almost say you have 20 different cultures.”

Licata said that many children in her school don’t use neighborhood playgrounds because they must go straight home after school for safety reasons, so teachers organize a day in the park, a trip to the zoo and other experiences these students may not have had.

“You’re eager, you want to start the day with the alphabet, and meanwhile some of your students didn’t eat breakfast, maybe didn’t sleep well,” Licata said.

If a parent shares with you that they are living in a homeless shelter, that helps the teacher understand why that student didn’t do his or her homework — the student may not have had a place to do it, Licata said.

Theresa Raza, a special education teacher in a kindergarten integrated co-teaching class at PS 346 in East New York, reflected on the differences she sees every day. “Some children can read and write when they come to us, and others don’t know how to cut with scissors or hold a pencil,” Raza said. “It was really important to hear how tolerant we need to be.”

Raza said she had an aha moment while listening to Dr. Bacon when she realized that just as students come from different backgrounds and cultures, not all teachers are alike. “I have to be more accepting of different teaching styles,” she said.

We need to have an awareness and understanding of our students so we can reach them where they are and teach them in a way that they can comprehend. And, beyond that, we have to let children know that even if today did not go well, there’s always tomorrow.

As educators, our keynote speaker told us, we have to be “merchants of hope.” As she put it, “Students have to understand they can always reclaim themselves with you.”

That remark resonated deeply with our audience of early childhood educators. They responded by giving her a standing ovation.