“We just cancelled Saturday school,” said an assistant principal from another school as he walked to his car. Sleet pecked us as we paused to talk in front of our shared Bronx campus. “Only two kids showed up, and most of the teachers had to call out because of the roads.”
So to cancel or not to cancel? As a principal, I normally don’t have this power, and the mayor of New York City decides whether or not to cancel school. However, this was Saturday school, which we start running in December to give students extra tutoring before January exams, and it was my call.
I opted not to cancel. Start time for students was 11:00 a.m.. By 10:30 a.m., all seven of the teachers were there. Students began to trickle in. Adil, a 10th grader originally from Yemen, was there first. He helped us set up the hot chocolate station which we had promised to students when we realized it was going to snow. Marieme and Fatou, two fashionable girls from Ivory Coast, both arrived to practice Geometry. Luis, a super-senior who arrived from Ecuador when he was in 11th grade, came an hour late due to his job. But he came, and studied for the one exam he needs to graduate, English.
We ended up getting 33 students, about a tenth of our population. 33 students meant an impractical, expensive student teacher ratio of 5 to 1, but also an excellent turnout for a non-mandated, snowy Saturday. I was deeply thankful for the teachers for being there, and for advertising the tutoring so students would want to be there. I was also impressed by so many of our students’ bright, competitive hunger to succeed that brings them to school on a bad weather Saturday.
I sat in the hallway next to the hot chocolate station and caught up on work while the teachers worked with small clusters of students in each classroom.
“Miss, I have to talk to you about something,” Adil told me, making yet another cup of hot chocolate. “Should I take the Living Environment* Regents exam in January?”
“In my professional opinion, you should wait for a full year. If you take it in January you’ll pass, but we want you to really learn it, and get a high score, not just pass. So wait until June. Master the material.”
He thought for a moment. “OK. Miss, I have to talk to you about something else. I don’t want to have a Yemen Day. It’s too much fighting between the north and south, no one is going to celebrate.”
He was referring to one of many different cultural celebrations that the student government was planning in order to recognize the various cultures of our student population. Adil had volunteered to be the point person for the Yemeni Day.
“Miss,” Adil continued, “What about a Muslim Day instead of a Yemen Day? Then it’s not about Yemen, it’s something everyone can celebrate.”
No, we couldn’t have a celebration of a specific religion in a public school, which I explained to Adil. I told him we’d work together to find a solution, and that I truly appreciated how much thought he was putting into this. He walked back to class with his hot chocolate.
I was moved that a 10th grader was considering factors like civil war in planning a student celebration, and reminded of how deeply complex the lives of our students are. I had started the day thinking Saturday school was only about exam prep and hot chocolate. Glad I didn’t cancel.
*Living Environment is a subject that encompasses elements of biology and environmental studies.
All of the names of students have been changed.