Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 24 August 2012 00:00
Joel Rauch of Plainview may have retired from teaching elementary school in Corona, Queens this past June, but he’s not quite done looking out for the kids of Corona. In addition to seeing to it that many of the programs started at the school during his tenure are continued, he also plans to donate 18 percent (or the lucky number chai in Hebrew) of the money he makes from private tutoring to the school. The money will go to special education programs and a Children of Corona scholarship fund.
“I have this emotional attachment to this school, and that’s not going to leave, so I’m desperately trying to find ways to support the community and the kids— especially the special ed kids,” said Rauch.
It’s clear just from talking to Joel Rauch that he loves to teach; viewing a special binder filled with pictures of his students, their letters, poetry, and the programs from numerous school plays they starred in (some of which Rauch penned himself) just cements it further. In fact, he seems like such a born teacher it’s hard to believe he spent 25 years away from the classroom.
While Rauch initially taught elementary school for three years early in his career, he ended up working in the garment district in Manhattan after a round of layoffs. Though he never had the passion for the work that he had for teaching, his career in clothing sales paid dramatically better, and it was a better position from the perspective of supporting his family. However, after 25 years, after his children were finished with college, Rauch decided that enough was enough; now that he no longer had a need for the money, why work in an industry he didn’t love?
“I’m not a “stuff” guy; how much stuff does one person need?” Rauch asks rhetorically. He went back to teaching, improbably ending up not only in the same school—P.S. 19 in Corona—but on the same floor, in the same room.
“It was like I never left. And I was more prepared, I thought, because I was a parent by that time,” remember Rauch.
However, to say that P.S. 19 presents some challenges for a teacher would be a vast understatement. With over 2,000 students, it’s one of the most overcrowded elementary schools in the country; parents have to line up at five in the morning to sign their children up for kindergarten. The facilities are overtaxed, the pay is small, and the parking may as well be nonexistent. Even knowing he wasn’t going back to teaching for the money (“No one does this for the money; if you’re in teaching for the money, you’re in the wrong field,”), seeing his first paycheck was still a shock to the system for Rauch.
Furthermore, while the teacher characterizes teaching on Long Island as a triangle, with students, teachers and parents all occupying an important place in the educational system, in Corona the parent component is missing. But Rauch is quick to point out that the problem isn’t that the parents don’t care; it’s that they often aren’t literate enough to play an active role in their children’s school lives. According to Rauch, the last time he held Open School Night, at least one parent showed up for each of the 30 children in his class.
“They care so much about their kid’s education, but they know they’re not equipped to help them,” he said, speaking of the school’s largely Spanish-speaking parent population.
It didn’t take long for Rauch to realize that in addition to their academic challenges, his students were missing a lot of critical items: coats, boots and other winter wear. He approached Temple Beth Elohim in Plainview, where he worked with TBE education director Deborah Tract to create a “Children of Corona” campaign. Tract sent out an email blast requesting coat donations, and the response from the congregation was overwhelming.
“The donations just kept coming and coming and coming,” remembered Tract. Once they were aware of the situation at P.S. 19, Tract said, people at the temple started to ask questions: What else do they need? Could the families of Corona use adult clothes, or even housewares? The answer was yes, and soon Rauch was loading up his car with donations once a month to take down to P.S. 19 for distribution. Rauch credits the school’s guidance counselors with contacting the school’s poorest families, making sure donations were going to people who needed them the most.
Over the past nine years, Rauch estimates that the congregants of TBE must have donated over $50,000 dollars worth of clothing and other items to the Corona community. Expanding the partnership further, TBE invited Rauch to come and speak to its fifth-grade Hebrew school class every year to explain the differences between how the children lived in Corona versus Plainview, both to help illustrate the importance of a mitzvah (doing a good deed), and to give the students a greater sense of perspective.
In addition to making sure his students had adequate clothes and shoes, Rauch also worked to give the children memorable experiences. After seeing the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, Rauch secured donations from The Silverman Foundation, which has since donated $4,000 a year for the last seven years so that the children could participate in the American Ballroom Theater (ABT) dancing program. He also arranged fundraising for an animal specialist to come into the school once a year and show the children all kinds of animals they would otherwise never get to see, like foxes, snakes and tropical frogs. The program is paid for through the sale of stuffed animals donated by the congregants at TBE.
He also wanted the students to have the experience of being stars, so he wrote original plays like Avenue C (based on the musical Avenue Q), and pulled out all the stops for the productions. In addition to performing original material, one of his classes performed a version of The Lorax a year before the movie hit theaters.
Still, perhaps the most important thing Rauch has done for his students is to imbue them with a sense of responsibility and purpose; during the stuffed animal drive, the kids themselves ran the event, with Rauch only acting in a supervisory position. He demands active involvement from the kids, and make no mistake: while Rauch may be a nice teacher, he is by no means an “easy” one.
“There’s no slacking off: you give me your best, and I will give you my best,” he says of his teaching philosophy, also noting that he uses games and systematic repetition to make the material crystal clear for the students. Test scores attest to the value of Rauch’s approach: despite a high number of children with special education needs (Rauch’s classes for the last two years have been 40 percent special education, with a co-teacher), his class performed better in ELA than any of the other 13 fifth-grade classes at the school during his last year, and not a single child failed. Many of his students received 4s and high 3s.
Despite his love of teaching, all good things must come to an end, and Rauch recently retired to care for his new grandson. Wanting to continue his affiliation with the school that has meant so much for him over the years, Rauch searched for a way to continue helping the children of Corona without being in the classroom. Eventually he came up with the idea of tutoring: Rauch will use his expertise as a licensed NYS teacher, with a lot of special education experience, to tutor reading skills, math skills and test-taking techniques. His rate is $72 per hour, a bargain for the area, and 18 percent of the money he earns will go to P.S. 19.
After meeting with the parent and child, Rauch offers one hour of tutoring as an assessment; if, after the first hour, the family likes what they see, they can hire him. If they elect not to do so, the first hour of tutoring was free.
“I can’t do anything more for this community than give of myself,” said Rauch.
Tutoring may be a new venture for this teacher, but he certainly comes highly recommended by those he partnered with for years at Temple Beth Elohim. “He’s an unbelievable human being, a wonderful human being, and he has a heart of gold,” said Deborah Tract of Rauch.
Still, even after nine years of helping the Corona community, Rauch isn’t as well-known to them as you might think; he insisted on keeping his name out of the school newsletter and many of the families who received winter coats and shoes never knew the name of the man who worked so hard to make it all possible. Other parents from TBE who may take over in ferrying donations to the school in the coming years will likely abide by the same rules.
“I always insisted on keeping my name out of it,” said Rauch. “It’s not about me.”