Principal not to blame for NYC high school riot
The headlines scream Bathroom Ban Leads to Riot at NYC High School! Most of these stories seem to paint Murry Bergtraum High School Principal Andrea Lewis as a sort of crazed tyrant who caused the riot by instigating an unreasonable ban on student use of the school’s restrooms. But a deeper look at the situation paints a far different picture.
First, the word demonstration is probably more appropriate to describe the event than riot. These students crowded the hallways and shouted a lot. There are no reports of violence or vandalism, both generally considered characteristic of any good riot. Several news stories claim the situation was chaotic, but that hardly seems to justify the title riot. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary gives the following definition for the word riot (unless you use the archaic definition):
a : public violence, tumult, or disorder
b : a violent public disorder;
In modern usage the word riot doesn’t accurately describe the event at Lewis’ school. Labeling the event as such does serve the purpose of the media. Sensational headlines sell papers. It also serves the purpose of those who dislike Lewis as the new leader of the struggling school. Students quoted in the various articles actually admitted the demonstration was more against her leadership than it was about the bathroom ban. Any students wanting things to return to their prior state, before Ms. Lewis, will be tickled the stories are exaggerating the seriousness of the event. Teachers who dislike their new principal are also likely to enjoy the sensationalism. Lewis was brought into the school to turn it around and that will always upset teachers who were content with the status quo at the failing school.
“What happened yesterday was absolutely a problem, and that’s why we can’t have that,” said American Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.
Lewis became the new principal at the school only this fall. Since 2003, she had been the principal at Acorn Community High School in Brooklyn. While there, she described herself as a “very procedure driven person” in an interview with InsideSchools.org. She instituted several policies there that likely met resistance by teachers, students, and parents when they were first put in place. But…they evidently worked.
Acorn Community High School‘s math and English scores improved drastically and the school was removed from New York’s list of schools needing improvement. Indeed, the school report card issued by the New York Department of Education for last year gave the school an overall grade of A. The highest marks were given for Student Progress. Contrast that with Murry Bergtraum‘s grade of D on last year’s report card, with an F in the Student Progress domain.
Lewis was hired to turn the school around and is even receiving a $25,000 per year bonus for agreeing to stay there for at least 3 years. That’s a pretty big statement that something was wrong at MBHS and NYC education officials believe Lewis is the one who can turn things around. Gotham Schools talked to students and found the bathroom ban might have been the spark, but the protest blaze was really fueled by the changes Lewis has made since her arrival.
“It’s not all about the bathroom,” said one student. “She’s made a lot more changes also.”
Students said that since her arrival at Bergtraum, Lewis has changed grading practices, made it mandatory for teachers to assign homework, and altered the curriculum. Some of those changes have bred resentment among students, they said.
Another student complained about changes to the music curriculum…
“It used to be, we talk about different types of music, sing every now and then,” the student said. “Now she wants us to treat it like it’s English and history put together….Why do we have to add other aspects when it’s not necessary?”
Now we’re starting to see the real problem here and it’s not Lewis. Officials at the school were not commenting on the event, which is standard in school districts across the country. But it is reported the bathroom ban followed a fight between students while classes were going on. In all likelihood, Lewis’ bathroom ban was meant to be a temporary means of keeping students from making their way out of class and into the halls to join the fray or start it anew–just a way to keep students in the classroom until things cooled down. And she even announced at the same time that, if it was an emergency, students could use the restroom at the nurse’s station.
The problem is the students don’t like the tactics Lewis is using to try to return the school to its intended purpose–to educate them! Imagine a music class that demands students actually learn music history and complements the English curriculum by requiring them to write papers. Imagine a high school that recognizes most real learning is achieved via discovery while working through assignments outside the classroom. Imagine a high school where rubrics are posted in the classroom to standardize grading practices. These are the types of changes made by a principal trying to reform a failing school, and it’s natural for students to resist.
What’s not natural, is for parents, teachers, and the media to defend a bunch of kids who “riot” because they’re not getting their way. It’s insane that the media paints this principal as a tyrant to sell papers, and that teachers blame the principal for student unruliness when she’s working to return a school to what it’s supposed to be, parents should be speaking out in support of Lewis for her attempts to turn things around.
I applaud Lewis for her efforts, and chastise any and all who oppose her “harsh” measures to get the job done. Keep it up Ms. Lewis, and get that school back in line.
Tags: New York City, Andrea Lewis, Murry Bergtraum High School, Acorn Community High School, Riot, Bathroom Ban, Education, Failing Schools
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