Teach the Children Well

Lauren Bowden and Sarah Brooks on schools, social justice and the state of special education in New York City

Editor: Shoko Wanger
Photography: Kisha Bari
Interview: Kimi Mongello, Saskia Ketz
Transcription: Xiu-Jing Shi, Kimi Mongello

What’s the best way to serve children with special needs? Over boxed wine and a bite to eat, educators Lauren Bowden and Sarah Brooks talk for the first time and open up about what it’s truly like to teach those who are too often cast aside.

Sarah Brooks: Most schools end up saying, “We can’t handle this child because their special needs or their behavior is too intense.”

We are a specialized school that only serves students with special needs. In some ways, that’s a more intense level of isolation, but some of the behaviors we encounter are extreme enough that educators really have to be specialized.

We’re the largest system in the country: 2 million children. It’s hard to find solutions to funding issues. One possibility is the European way, where the school isn’t community-funded—of course the schools in poor areas perform the poorest because they have less resources, and all the while, people act like it’s a surprise that those students have the lowest scores.

Some of these kids are so bright. And the longer you stay in special ed, the harder it is to get out. My job is kind of funny in that my goal is to get them out of special education. I think some of them are bright enough to be in gifted programs. It’s just that their emotional needs make it impossible for them to be a part of a class of 30. They’d just come right back to me.

I know of a school in Park Slope that is one of few schools that has been able to integrate general and special education students in the same classroom. The reason they can do this? It comes down to money. It’s extremely expensive to have two licensed teachers for every classroom.

“Every single one of my kids is a good kid. Every single one of my kids is a smart kid. Every single kid is a good person. But because of these broader social realities that they’re born into, they have no way of escaping. The only escape is through education but we’re failing them there.” Lauren Bowden

Lauren Bowden: When I was a social worker I worked closely with an organization with ACS [Administration for Children’s Services], and you see the depth of the bureaucracy. The money is there, but it’s not always used most efficiently. And the children suffer.

SB: At my school, there are teachers who have been there 20 years and are resistant to change.

LB: And they’re getting paid $108K a year. What do you max out at, Sarah?

SB: $108K after 20 years.

AWT: What do you both make?

SB: I make $56K.

LB: I make $51K because first year teachers start with $45K. I’m new but I started with a masters in social work so that bumped me up $5K. After five years or another masters you get bumped up again. This is a massively challenging job. We’re not babysitters, but for some kids we’re the alternative to being at a shelter. We are the only place to get a meal, to be warm for the day.

SB: It’s powerful to be a part of something like this. I feel like I have eight children. They’re all from very different backgrounds and if I wasn’t their teacher, we wouldn’t ever have crossed paths.

LB: Education is key. Education is social justice. Education is equality. That one foundational element that can help anybody, if provided, is education. Education is power.

“My dream is … that somehow in our time together, they will feel safety and self-confidence or something—something that they can take with them, even if it’s just the feeling of being empowered or capable.” Sarah Brooks
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