School Reform and Parent Involvement at the Haywood Burns School, P.S. 176 in Northern Manhattan


by cynthia mcccallister

I became a mother in 1990, when I gave birth to 'Packie,' then 'Fiona' in 1991.

When I moved to New York City in 1996 to work as an assistant professor at a university, I also began consulting in a public school in Northern Manhattan where my children were enrolled. At the Haywood Burns School, my children were the only white kids in their classrooms. My daughter was the only English speaker in hers. For the first time, my children and I were minorities in an otherwise homogenous cultural context (the kids in our school were mostly Spanish speakers of Dominican descent).

As a consultant, I advised K-8 teachers to implement the Writing Block and Writing Share in their classrooms, just as I had done when I was a teacher. I also showed how to free up space in their reading programs to allow kids to select texts of their choosing, and how to assess reading skills in the context of authentic reading activities. In classrooms where the practices were done consistently, the students responded well. They seemed engaged, motivated, and showed progress. My daughter, Fiona, was a student in such a classroom. My son, Packie, was not. 

The implementation was inconsistent in the school overall. Though the teachers as a whole faculty agreed to the new program we had proposed and received funding through the New Visions foundation to support, some ignored the program and used their own practices, others lacked classroom management skills to implement the program coherently, or, especially in the middle school grades, some replaced the program with test preparation activities.

When I expressed my concern about lack of program fidelity to the principal, she directed criticism toward me, suggesting it was my responsibility to be supportive of teachers in support of students--and in my opinion skirting her responsibility to tend to teachers' responsibility to adhere to program fidelity (an issue I was especially sensitive to, since my own child, in my opinion, was missing out on important learning opportunities due to a weak curriculum).

But in the mid 1990s, in this era of school reform, the concern for program implementation fidelity was not a common. The basal reader curricula, which was falling out of favor, had created de facto fidelity systems that due to their linear structure. But we were attempting to move beyond classical transmission, and without a structure that could be used for collective accountability purposes.

This was the first time I experienced tension caused by lack of accountability stemming from a model of progressivism that I endorsed. This dilemma reared its ugly head in the real-life drama of my own children's schooling and my own efforts to be part of an initiative to reform the school they attended. My son's lack of progress at the school became such a concern that my husband and I decided to transfer him when it became clear in early fall that his teacher was unable to manage the classroom and he had not yet learned to read (despite nightly read aloud and reading support at home).

Community school board politics hindered the progress of the school. The principal, who was not permanently appointed, was not supported by the superintendent, and was not appointed permanently. By the time my son's classmates entered third grade, almost half of them were referred for special education services.

As a mother and school reformer, I was heartbroken that our vision for a progressive school in Northern Manhattan failed. I felt defeated and disappointed. But the fire in me continued. 




cynthia mcccallister
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