Trading portfolios for lesson plans
On the third floor of Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy, 21 senior students are discussing the moral implications of organ transplant markets. A student raises her hand and wonders if doctors would be motivated to harvest a criminal’s organs before he was actually dead. The unfolding ethical debate isn’t typical for a microeconomics course, but in Jane Viau’s classroom engaged, inquisitive students are the norm.
Viau, 45, is a former investment banker turned math teacher, who has a knack for explaining bone-dry concepts like price ceilings by turning them into something worthy of the Facebook generation’s attention.
For the last eight years Viau has been making math easy for her students to understand, and the proof is in the percentages. Last year her advanced placement statistics class had a 91 percent passing rate, compared with the national rate of 59 percent. But the disparity in numbers is consistent with the school’s reputation.
The school, located at 148th Street and Seventh Avenue, is a bright spot for the New York City public school system; a predominantly African-American student population, that boasts a 90 percent 4-year graduation rate. Compared with the 60.8 percent citywide graduation rate, Frederick Douglass seems to be doing something different with its emphasis on structure and discipline, mandated uniforms, and intense focus on college preparation.
The other part of its success comes from one of its 91 teachers like Viau, who has been raising money through grant writing to get her classes the materials they need. In the past year Viau has raised nearly $25,000 to buy textbooks and fund field trips for her classes.
This year, Viau is teaching advanced microeconomics, a new course for both her and the school. The students wanted to be able to understand what was going on in the economy and get college credit at the same time. With an M.B.A. from the Leonard N. Stern School at New York University, and a 16-year career in real estate management and investment banking, Viau was a perfect candidate to teach the class.
In the spring before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the glamour of finance had faded. Viau did what very few ever do; she left Wall Street. Leaving Merrill Lynch to fundraise for AIDS research was her first attempt at a meaningful professional life. The terrorist attacks, she said, only helped her realize that she made the right decision.
But for Viau, fundraising felt more like writing a check. Eager to feel like she was doing more, she allowed fate to intervene. That meant seeing a subway ad for the NYC Teaching Fellows, which was seeking candidates for math positions.
“I thought, oh my god, I could teach math, because I love math,” she said. “So then my goal was to go and teach where they really have a dearth of good teachers.”
She told herself that if she were going to take an even further pay cut, then she would really make it worth it. A fitting decision since the program is aimed at training teachers to place in hard-to-staff schools. Through the program she was certified to teach high school mathematics and received her Master of Education from City University of New York.
Viau’s first placement embodied the reality of what a hard-to-staff school really meant. She requested a transfer, citing safety concerns when a student threw a desk at her, and the administration asked her what she had done to provoke the student.
“I literally didn’t know what to do. Learning was not happening there. It was complete chaos. It was babysitting and it was a bad situation.”
Initially, her request was rejected, but through sheer luck and timing a position quickly opened up at her current school.
Frederick Douglass Academy’s demographics, she said, are the same as her previous school; predominantly African-American and from low-income families. “It’s not like the kids are any different than the kids at the other school. But the difference is that they know there is a ladder of command, and they know there are consequences if they don’t behave.”
Dr. Gregory Hodge is at the top of that ladder, as the school’s principal, where he’s been for the last 14 of his 33-year long career as an educator. Hodge seems to know how to make his school function. With budget cutbacks that means he’s acting as secretary; answering his own phone calls, e-mails, and letters that are piling high in his office. This saves the school $25,000 a year. This is also the first year he is teaching two senior classes where he is focusing on how to properly write college research papers.
“We are short on funds, what can I tell you?” he said. “It has been a very interesting economic year, but this is Frederick Douglass and without struggle there is no progress, so we keep stepping.”
Hodge sees no reason why his 1600 students shouldn’t have the same education as those who attend a private school. That means the school offers students the opportunities to study Japanese, Latin, music and dance. It also means hiring dedicated teachers, 76 percent of which have a Master’s degree or doctorate, and fostering their potential.
When Viau approached him last year with requests to teach advanced placement economics, he initially refused; the school didn’t have the funding. Hodge said that she was “borderline obsessive,” in trying to get the course up and running.
“She’s like a guard dog, very tenacious, very persistent, and you are not going to get past her,” he said, adding that he has faith the class will be a success.
Viau’s grant writing achievements fits very well with Hodge’s model for funding: donations. “We are basically an inner city school but we do tremendous things with getting like-minded people; hustling, borrowing, begging, pleading. But you got to believe in what you are doing,” he said.
Viau raised nearly $5,000 for textbooks for her economics class through the online charity Donors Choose. Her background in fundraising alerted her to the wealth of donors available and she isn’t shy about asking companies to pitch in. Viau said she is also quick to acknowledge them in writing; her class is constantly writing thank you notes, since a little gratitude can go a long way.
Viau, like the school, is an anomaly; she isn’t concerned with making money and she really cares about her students. Longtime friend Matt Blank, who worked with Viau for nine years at the start of her career at MetLife Inc., classified Viau as one of the hardest working people he has ever known, and said the amount of time she spends with her students shows her dedication.
While she makes maybe a tenth of her old salary, Viau still logs late hours, staying after school until 7 p.m. so students can have a quiet place to do their homework or ask for help; something that has not gone unnoticed.
Dalifet Hernandez, 17, is one of the school’s top students, but is struggling to understand economic concepts like elasticity. Hernandez said she really appreciates how available Viau makes herself to students.
“Most other teachers aren’t willing to help as much. It’s either you come right after class or before school, and some people have things they have to do before school so they don’t get the chance to get the help they need,” she said.
Come February, Viau will be spending even more time in the classroom; leading tutorials during spring break, and every Saturday to get her advanced placement students ready to ace their exams.
“Most of this extra time is voluntary,” said Jennifer Hodge, head of the school’s math department, who stressed that Viau isn’t compensated for her long hours doing whatever is necessary to help her students.
This level of commitment seems to be Viau’s trademark according to her former boss at Fitch IBCA. Janet Price worked with Viau for five years and funded several class field trips last year. Price said that Viau’s work ethic translates into her many levels of success.
“I have a lot of respect for her. If you could find a school and fill it with her as the staff, you would have a school that works,” she said.
Price isn’t the only one who thinks that. Students, like 17-year-old Thay Brown, who spends most days after school in her classroom, also recognize Viau’s dedication.
Brown said that he has adjusted to Viau’s heavy workload, and thinks her methods like the organ transplants example, seem to be working.
“She really cares about us. You can sense it. She’s not just doing it for the money. I mean she has a business degree; she can go and do whatever. Not a lot of teachers around here are like that,” Brown said.
And Brown’s sentiments towards Viau have been recognized by a number of organizations. Last June she won the 2009 NYC Teaching Fellows Award for Classroom Excellence, where she accepted the award accompanied by her students.
Viau may have left Wall Street, but like many bankers she still takes her work home. Recently she and her husband became certified foster parents so they can legally house a former student, who is a ward of the state. Over the winter break Viau will take on this new challenge by having the student, now an 18-year-old college freshman, living in her house. An extraordinary measure, but for Viau it’s just the right thing to do.