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Monday, January 23, 2012

Tottenville, Mio Amore

Philip Nobile had to journey all the way from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn to Tottenville, Staten Island, but he found love when he got there. 

The idyllic shore of Staten Island
I spent four days in teachers’ paradise last week. The 1 hour and 50 minute commute from my Cobble Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn to the offshore Tottenville High School violated the contract and prompted me to file a grievance. Yet hearing only the best about the southernmost school in the state, I decided to lay back and enjoy it, which was not hard.

Tottenville is an island in the sun, a congenial, B-rated, hyper-segregated white, middleclass, heavily Italian place with an 83% graduation rate and college readiness rate 10 times that of Bed Stuy’s turbulent, F-rated, hypersegregated, minority Boys and Girls that graduates only 53 percent. My 11-year run in Brooklyn and Manhattan--minus three-years in a rubber room frame-up--has been restricted to poverty-stricken institutions. Apart from the A-rated Manhattan Village, none were free from the pathologies that infect the poor. Teaching in these classrooms was, sadly for me and tragically for students, too often an achievement killing field.

Tottenville seems to support the intuitive theory that good discipline and good scholarship are positively correlated. Regarding lewd and rude language (Discipline Code, Level 2B15), I heard the Cee-lo F-word spoken no more than a half-dozen times and the Kobe F-word not once in the past four-day week. When the former obscenity was uttered casually in class, it was easily snuffed out without snarky backtalk. As for my other cultural indicator, pants on the ground, no such pairs were made visible. The student handbook did not cite pants specifically in the dress code. But the commandment against showing underwear closed the loophole.

Hanging with my own tribe for once (mio nonno era italiano) was not a guilty pleasure. On my first day, I found myself in “Institute” English classes. These were the top kids in the school, above and beyond honors, who got intense, four-year academic training and were dropped out if their average dipped below 88. Taking attendance was like reading the credits from La Dolce Vita. Polite, vivacious, and amused by irony, I had a captive audience for my mindreading tricks and, serendipitously, my amazing-but-true, critical-thinking, Italian factoid--there are no spelling bees in Italy. Why not? Answer: Italian words, unlike English, are spelled as they are pronounced—e.g. attenzione v. attention.

All the other classes, except for one sour TV-production session, were delightful in their own way. Instead of perceiving me as a remote stand-in scold, the kids treated me like a not-so-distant member of the family. I’ve had to ring up deans almost everywhere on the ATR trail, even at Manhattan Village where I was removed after three days for doing so, but Tottenville appeared tension- free---on all levels.

The office folks and faculty were ATR-friendly and accommodating; sub lessons and I.D. photos for each class were provided, and the express SIR ride from the ferry was only 24 minutes with seat guaranteed. The nicest touch of all was a Franciscan understanding of red-eye commutes from Brooklyn or beyond. If you cannot manage an 8 AM arrival without major circadian upheaval, do not worry--the Samaritans of Tottenville forgive easily. 

Picture credits:


  1. My daughter is in the Institute at Tottenville. It is a wonderful school.

  2. Sono contento che lei ha arrivata ha una scuola che i studenti era bravi. (I know I made some mistakes in that attempt at my first language - since forgetten unfortunately.) Glad you hade a nice experience there. Makes it kind of obvious that so much of the determining factor of a school is the socioeconomic structure of the nieghborhoods that supply the students the building is responsible for. America's sad but true.

  3. Do they teach to the test as well? Or are they beyond that low class endeavor? Friendly teachers? Holy geez! Good morale and respect for ATRs? OMG! All I get are complaints about former ATRs, like I'm not one myself, and little help from staff. Just today I got reprimanded in front of my class by the science teacher for bringing them to science lab on the second bell. How was I supposed to know this k-5 school works on three bells? A first for me! Yep, every day is like the first day of school multiplied by 5-6 classes per day...400-500 classes this year so far? My hats off to ATRs the hardest working folks in education!
    .....I feel your pain.

  4. These issues, and how the UFT should respond to the attacks on public education and the teaching profession will be discussed at the "State of the Union" conference (a coalition effort), next Saturday, February 4, at the Graduate Center for Worker Education, 25 Broadway, 7th Floor,
    For more information and registration info, visit the event's page,
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