Going Public: Patricia James Jordan '72

By Jessica Winum

Beset, bothered, and beleaguered: a common perception of teachers in public high school these days, one nurtured by news, TV, movies, and pundits. Who would choose such a difficult and unappreciated career? Well, more than 500 Vassar alumnae/i identify themselves as teachers (K—12) and each year an average of 15 graduate with a degree in a major field and NYS certification to begin teaching. They teach at private and public schools, grade schools and high schools; poor schools and wealthy schools; troubled schools and thriving schools. Here we meet one Vassar grad who is bewitched by teaching; she’s an award-winning teacher at an award-winning public high school. She’s the kind of teacher students remember fondly for a lifetime: bright, bracing, and expectant of your best behavior.

An ambient hum powers the class taught by Patricia James Jordan ’72.In the glowing fluorescent light of her standard-issue schoolroom, the hum comes not from the overhead lamps but from the students, who mumble and punch calculators as they navigate worksheets filled with quadratic equations. On the blackboard, Jordan works along with them, coaxing the students for answers.

"You go, Melissa!" she praises a student who brightly announces the solution.

Moving swiftly along to the next equation, Jordan focuses her attention on a young man who came to class without his graphing calculator. "I guess I’ll just have to do it algebraically," he tells her.

"I guess you will," she agrees. Before giving him a moment to pelt her with excuses, she forges into the problem, taking advantage of one student’s lapse to review for all the old-fashioned way of solving quadratic equations. It’s not what she had planned for the lesson, but Jordan prides herself on being a flexible and open-minded instructor. According to her philosophy, the qualities are basic job requirements.

Keen, earnest, and compelling, Jordan represents one element of a successful formula for public education: dedicated and knowledgeable teachers. But Jordan is not your rank-and-file educator. She has an undergraduate degree in black studies and psychology, master’s degrees in school psychology and special education, and a Ph.D. in psychology from Hofstra University. She’s also earned a license to practice clinical psychology, and certification as a K-12 mathematics instructor, school psychologist, and special education teacher–all tools that she could use to transport herself into more lucrative and prestigious work. Instead, she stays true to a passion she has felt since childhood, when she emulated her first-grade teacher while playing school at home. "I wanted to be like the teacher I had, standing up in the front of the room," she recalls. That vision of authority and influence has inspired her nearly 30-year career in the classroom. Today, she is the only public school teacher on an advisory panel to the state commissioner of education.

Jordan grew up in the South Bronx and attended the highly regarded Bronx School of Science, a public school in New York City with competitive admission requirements. Today she teaches mathematics (from remediation to precalculus honors), computers (introductory programming and software tool usage), and community service (required of all students) in a district whose demographics are very different from the one in which she was raised. Twenty miles from Manhattan, where Jordan now resides, the Roslyn district covers five miles and 5,000 families on Long Island’s North Shore; according to district figures, 83 percent of its student population is white, 8 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent African American. There is some economic diversity among residents, though the majority are middle- and upper-class professionals who commute to New York City.

Roslyn High School is a public education success story. It was named one of the top ten high schools in the country in 1999/2000 by the Wall St. Journal and appeared simultaneously on Newsweek magazine’s list of the one hundred best schools in the nation. According to statistics offered on the district’s Website, the senior classes of 2000 and 2001 scored an average of 576 on their verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) and 600 on the mathematics portion of the exam. In 2000, 76 percent of the students graduated with New York’s Regents diploma, and more than 90 percent of graduates went on to four-year colleges or universities.

The school does have its share of students who have made poor choices when it comes to drugs or behavior, admits Jordan. But as a teacher she isn’t distracted by the kinds of problems that she knows plague many public schools and are often the plot-driving events in many news and television programs. "The people who are making the Hollywood movies are out to make money. I don’t know how much money they’d make if they showed this scene," she chuckles, motioning toward the quiet hallways. "This would be boring, I guess. You know, they want to show some rowdy kids."

Minutes later an electronic beep, which has replaced the shrill ring of a bell, sends students careening out into the formerly silent passageways. As they pass her in their hurry, many yell, "Hey Dr. J.!" She acknowledges each with a smile and a wave, calling many of the teens by name. The district’s parents, administrators, and the board of education are supportive, says Jordan, and a pervasive spirit of cooperation continually invigorates both teachers and the curriculum. Overall, she says, Roslyn is a "utopian environment in which to teach."

Jordan cultivates a demeanor that is simultaneously tough and nurturing. "Without question, I am demanding," she says. "I respect my students’ abilities, including those skills that have been realized along with those that have not yet been tapped. I believe in the potential of every last one of them, and I also believe in teaching them responsibility along with mathematics. Character education has always been my priority." That is reflected on the "RAP" sheets she distributes with the week’s assignments. In bold red letters at the top of each list she reminds students of her expectations–Respect, Attendance, Preparation. "The subject matter is secondary to the way we treat each other as human beings," she affirms.

When not in a math or computer classroom, Jordan often can be found counseling and talking with students in a corner room that is home to the school’s Enrichment and Support Program, which she founded in 1986 and continues to run. Here she works with students of all levels in small group classes or individual tutoring sessions, helping them improve their academic performance, meet graduation requirements, prepare for standardized tests, and sharpen personal, social, and study skills. A single large table occupies the center of the space. Around the room are pictures of success: inspiration to both students and Jordan. Pinned to the walls are Polaroids and snapshots of Jordan with smiling teenagers–black and white, male and female–their arms slung over each other’s shoulders. Interspersed are yellowed newspaper articles: a 1993 piece from when she was New York State Teacher of the Year and a Disney American Teacher (the program honors extraordinary professional educators); a clipping announcing her designation as Humanitarian of the Year by the Lakeview, Long Island, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; a headline proclaiming her honors from the National Council of Negro Women, another announcing her designation as a Tandy Technology Scholar. On the door is the motto she has adopted for the program: "Seek help not because you are weak, but because you want to remain strong."

African-American students in particular seek Jordan here. For years she has willingly served as an unofficial mentor and advocate for them. Their numbers are few in the district, and Jordan knows the pressures they feel, having herself been one of the few black faces at Bronx Science; she recalls the gratitude she felt for the African-American faculty members who helped her deal with the daily challenges of being in the minority. "To see the dark face of a staff member is a silent kind of emotional soother," she says.

In an e-mail to the VQ, Betty Jackson Powell, one of Jordan’s early mentees who graduated from Roslyn in 1985, wrote: "As an African American attending Roslyn Public Schools, I didn’t encounter any African-American teachers until Dr. Jordan. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have known Dr. Jordan if she [hadn’t] made it her business to get to know all of the African-American students who attended the high school."

Current students, such as junior Lashaun Price, also state their appreciation for her guidance and encouragement. "I feel very close to her, and if something is bothering me . . . I know she is always there," says Price. "And in this world, that is very reassuring." Jordan says students bring every kind of concern to her, from academic issues to "where to buy the right shade of pantyhose and what spices I use to flavor my collard greens."

Jordan makes a special point of involving African-American parents in their children’s education. Often this takes her outside the school walls. The Roslyn Community Center, for example, cooperates with her on events. She organized a dinner for families and led them through the new state standards for mathematics; she collaborates with the African-American Parents’ Advisory Council, an affiliate group of the local PTA, and other community groups to host awards dinners for African-American students who excel in "math, science, social studies, English, and foreign languages." To those who may question whether her focus on African-American students, at least outside the classroom, is discriminatory, Jordan says simply, "It’s a prideful embracing of our shared culture, and my colleagues welcome that." In class, however, her stance is that "every child . . . has to feel that she or he is my favorite. I maintain that they are all brilliant, and that they are all capable."

Equality and diversity in the classroom are causes for which Jordan has been striving since her days at Vassar.In 1969, she was one of a group of black students whose peaceful takeover of Main Building led to the creation of the Black Studies program, now known as Africana Studies. Her stepdaughter, she says smiling, calls her "a militant." But Jordan says that her activism these days is more subtle. "I’m not taking over buildings anymore," she laughs. "I don’t have to, because I’ve learned how to talk with people more effectively, and what I have to say is often welcomed."

As an active member of the African American Alumnae/I of Vassar College and a member of the AAVC Nominating Committee, Jordan is still working to help the Vassar community embrace diversity within its ranks.

In spite of Jordan’s dedication to public schools, she is not one to simply accept shoddy education for her loved ones, nor to accept a good education just because it is public. She knows from her own upbringing in the South Bronx, her earliest teaching experiences at Martin Luther King High School on the West Side in Manhattan and Park East High School in East Harlem, and her travel to hundreds of school districts around the state when she was NYS Teacher of the Year, that drugs, violence, dilapidated buildings, outdated textbooks, and overcrowded classrooms are not simply the products of rich Hollywood imaginations.

When faced with poor or inappropriate public schools, she says, parents in a position to choose naturally select something different for their children. She has. When her nephew was assigned to a mismanaged and problem-ridden high school in the city, Jordan enlisted administrative help to get him reassigned. He is now a student at Lehman High School in the Bronx, which is "run so well that everyone wants his or her kids to go there," she says. She is certain that Lehman High School’s principal saved her nephew’s life by allowing him to attend the school.

When it came time to choose a school for her daughter, now age 6, Jordan and her husband decided to send her to the Brearley School–an independent school for girls in Manhattan–which could provide her with the individual attention they felt she needed but wouldn’t get in the city’s public system.

"Everyone should be able to choose what is best for a child," Jordan explains. "If I had no choices, I would be a very hands-on parent at a public school. But I see no reason for my daughter to suffer because of something I philosophically believe in."

This is not to say that Jordan supports the idea of vouchers that would allow parents to remove their children from poorly run and underfunded schools and send them to private schools, taking public money with them. "The philosophy behind that idea is very contradictory," she says. "If the criticism is that the school is not up to par, then how will taking money away help? The funding shouldn’t be taken from people who are already underserved. Moreover, the program is not a vote of confidence in the public school teachers, who already do a lot with little resources." The better way to help these poor schools, she argues, is to address their needs, not to take away the small amount of money they receive.

From her appointed seat on the New York State Commissioner’s Advisory Board for Closing the Performance Gap, which convenes to brainstorm and advise the state’s commissioner of education at his request, Jordan brings her views to policy discussions. She’s the only public school teacher on the committee, whose other members include representatives from parents’ organizations and officials from state colleges and universities, and she acknowledges that her influence on policy is "mild." Significant differences in school performance among students of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds is, she believes, primarily "reflective of our culture of have- and have-nots," and solutions will require political and legislative changes in funding. "Every child should be treated equally," she says simply.

In the meantime, she finds ways to fight the battle in her own classroom and through a scholarship she established in memory of her mother, Juanita James, who passed away in 1985. The small fund that grew from the compilation of money tucked in sympathy cards, her mother’s tax refund, and donations from friends and Vassar classmates has since helped a number of selected scholars from Jordan’s childhood neighborhood attend college and universities such as Columbia University and Manhattan College.

A crowd of sophomores streams into Jordan’s classroom for the last teaching period of the day. They toss a "What’s up" or a "Hey, Dr. J" to her as they sort out their notebooks and begin copying down exercises. Quickly she asks for five volunteers to come to the board, then plunges into the geometry lesson, energetically asking and answering questions. At the front of the room, a young man droops at his desk. She notices his withdrawal and over several minutes maneuvers unobtrusively to coax his participation, at one point positioning herself in front of his desk where she can’t be ignored. Slowly, he begins to scribble notes. Minutes later, he offers an answer and laughs at a joke. Jordan stops and smiles at him. "Evan, does this make you laugh?" she asks. "Good, I wanted to cheer you up." The day draws to a close much as it began; with an unmeasurable instance of teaching that was not in Jordan’s lesson plan.