Monday, March 28, 2011

Interview with Luis Torres

How does the principal of a persistently failing elementary school win a national award?  He does so by recognizing that their mission is to nurture the whole child, taking care of their physical, social, and emotional needs in addition to their intellectual development.  He does so by realizing that hungry children cannot learn.  He does so by putting children first and worrying about reading and math scores later.

ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter with 
teacher Brad Kuntz of at Gladstone High in Gladstone, Oregon, and 
Principal Luis Torres (in the tan suit)
of PS 55 elementary in the Bronx, New York.  
Photo credit - ASCD

“Kids don’t know how to behave in school,” Luis Torres, principal of PS 55 elementary in the Bronx and one of ASCD 2011 Outstanding Young Educator award winner begins.  “How can we focus on literacy and math if he doesn’t know how to behave in school?”

Torres is an advocate of doing schooling differently.  He notes that current-trend school reformers are interested in doing school the same way we have always done, and concentrating on the same skills and lessons we have always focused.  Unfortunately, children, and their struggles, have changed.  “My kids are mentally far more advanced than kids were when I was going to school.  I mean, they have to deal with stuff we never had to deal with.  I’m talking to seven-year-olds about gangs.  He’s seven years old and he already knows how he is going to get into a gang.”

Kids at PS 55 have few places to socialize and be kids.  “They don’t have safe places to play,” Torres notes.  His school is surrounded by four different public housing projects.  Each project has it’s own identity and it’s own gangs who vie for control of the neighborhood.  Some parents are very concerned about the dangers in the neighborhood and rarely allow their children to go outside to play, certainly never unsupervised.  Other parents “just let their kids roam everywhere and are exposed to adult and older children activities that might not be good for them,” his eyebrow arching, allowing me to infer that he was talking about sex, violence, and drug abuse.

Torres now finds himself in a position where he must risk his job to serve his kids.  “I could get fired for talking about these things,” he notes.  “No one want to talk about where these kids live.  One group of kids dumped a bag of garbage on the street saying, ‘Mr. Torres, let’s see if the city trucks sweep this up?’  That garbage is still there, along with a lot more.”  Torres has now found himself involved in local politics.  “Because we’re not close to the train or the freeway, nobody sees this and complains to the city.  I’ve got to do that.  Now, I’m the crazy principal who is going around talking about all of these things.”

In addition to his own job being at risk, PS 55 is perpetually at risk of being closed for failing to make their annual goals of raising math and reading scores on the state’s high-stakes exam.  “It’s like a slap in the face every year, to these kids, and to the teachers who love then and works their butts off to support them.”  Torres when on to speak about the inequity of schools in New York and how the poverty that his school is embedded in makes it difficult to hire teachers.  “Once they (teachers) are here, once they are adopted by the community, they fall in love with these kids and they never want to go.  But it’s hard to get a new teacher into the door.  They look at how hard this job is; they look at the poverty in the neighborhood; we’re not near public transportation, and there is nowhere to park their car.  Combine all of that with the higher salaries the other (suburban) schools can offer; combine all of that with the insult of being labeled “failures” every year, no wonder they don’t want to work here.”

School advocates who are more concerned with children than tests scores often call PS 55 an “oasis”.   “We shouldn’t be an ‘oasis’,” decries Torres.  “What’s an ‘oasis’?  It’s the one good spot in the middle of a desert.  Schools can’t be oasis’s.  We need to be rainforest.  We need to be one great spot in a great community.”

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