This Is New York: Xaundrae Tingling, Bringing Hope to a Troubled School

March 1, 2014 Updated: March 3, 2014

NEW YORK—The teachers and eighth-grade class of a middle school on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint are fighting against dire prospects. 

MS 126 was marred by a history of disappointment: Failing test scores; a sexual harassment scandal between a teacher’s aide and cheerleaders;  a principal who turned a blind eye. But in the nick of time, there was an administration change that saved the school from a permanent closure.

Today, parents praise how the school and their community have experienced a blessing in the last two years. But there is one group of children who are still waiting for their miracle—the eighth graders of MS 126.

Those students are caught between a chasm of old and new rules. 

Their junior high school years began with an environment blighted by belligerence. Day in and day out, they faced unending fights in hallways, a nonexistent curriculum, and teachers who looked at them with eyes that have lost hope. It was a school that ranked at the bottom 8 percent of schools in New York City. 

Marcos Bausch, the new principal, has helped turn the school around from a D grade in 2011 to an A grade school by 2013. 

In the 2013–2014 school year the eighth-graders suddenly found themselves in a world with great expectations, a world with academic requirements that seemed nearly impossible to meet. 

Many of the students have learning disabilities and behavior issues. Teachers are putting their hearts on the line for a year of miracles for the eighth-grade class, racing against time to save these young minds and the potential that they hold. 

A man by the name of Xaundrae Tingling is playing a crucial role in the making of that miracle. 

Tingling, a lanky, 6-foot-2-inch-tall man, is a recent Morehouse graduate. The 24-year-old walks through the gray, fluorescent-lit halls of the school, slapping high-fives with the children. Tingling is a City Year corps member. 

City Year is a nonprofit that partners with public schools and teachers to help keep students in school. It brings AmeriCorps members between the ages of 17 and 24 to give a year of full-time support in schools. 

Tingling gives in-class tutoring, extra attention to focus groups, and assistance in after-school programs. An average day for him goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. 

Teachers and the administration analyze previous years’ test scores and create a focus list of students who are potentially at risk of dropping out. Tingling has nine children on his focus list. He pulls them out of class by rotation and gives them individual attention and tutoring. 

“He’s a God bless,” said Lisa Rurak, 46, an eighth-grade English teacher at MS 126. 

Rurak has been teaching for over 20 years, and for some of those years she taught at a specialized school for mentally disabled children.

“I thought I had so much experience, but when I got to this school I said oh my goodness … it was a bad place to be,” she said. “But I’m from the neighborhood here, I came with a mission to change things.”

At the beginning of the school year, a large portion of the class had trouble writing a five-paragraph-long essay. 

Rurak assigned Tingling to help tutor these children. Recently, he spent a week tutoring a child with autism and an auditory disability; a child who is too social and disruptive in class; and one who simply needed extra clarification on each assignment and lesson. 

“He was given three very different kids to coach, and he met their needs,” she recalled. “The children’s reading and writing skills have progressed tremendously,” she said. 

And just like that, his life intertwines with these students. Tingling is deciding whether he wants to become a teacher or a mentor, and as he searches for his own path, he gives hope. 

In a school where 89 percent of the students receive free lunch, Tingling is there to help provide a sense of stability. 

He is old enough to know that working hard in school is important, but young enough to know what the latest video games are. 

Children tell Tingling things they would not tell their teachers or parents. Things like first dates, and conflicts at home. 

“Right, a date,” he said, motioning quotation marks and rolling his eyes. 

His demeanor is down-to-earth, humble, and humorous. But he is also surprisingly strict at the right moments. 

Students gather around him, taking the initiative to meet with him any chance they get. He is the purveyor of all homework solutions. But most importantly, he makes them feel smart. He always tells them he knows they know the answer, and after a while, they start to believe him. 

“A lot of them know the material, they’re just a little shy,” he said. “I don’t come in and prejudge anybody. Kids pick up on the mannerism and vibes that adults give off.”

He spends his day following the same eighth-grade class everyday through all their subjects. There are 25 students in that class—that means, at least 25 individual struggles and potentials. 

Some of the students travel from as far as Canarsie. Tingling keeps an eye out on attendance. 

Many of the children at MS 126 remind him of himself. It wasn’t too long ago that he was sitting in a classroom in Queens similar to MS 126.

New York, Full Circle

Tingling was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He moved to St. Albans, Queens when he was 11 years old.

He noticed how New Yorkers were not as family-oriented as Jamaicans. He was a shy boy. The more the focus was on individualism, the more he withdrew into his shell.

His single mother is a strong-willed, “no-nonsense kind of woman,” who is constantly reading and talking about politics. 

She got him involved in a number of different after-school programs such as the Boys Club of New York and the Liberty Partnership Prize Program, where he learned to speak up for himself. 

Tingling went to Van Buren High School and when a nearby school closed in 2005, the students merged. 

His school became overcrowded. There were fights, and more fights, as children from clashing neighborhoods poured in. There would be 40 children in one classroom. Latecomers sat on the heater. 

His mother did not stand for an overcrowded school. So she signed him up for boarding school in North Carolina when he was 15. 

The Power of Mentoring

Tingling’s father never played an active role in his life.

“For some people it might be hard, but I never thought about it,” Tingling said. “I accepted it for what it was. I never asked why.”

He was close to his three uncles, and a mentor he met during his schooling in North Carolina, Harry Wright Jr.

Wright went on to become the associate dean at Morehouse, where Tingling also went to college. Wright taught him that he could be anything he wanted to be, as long as he had the passion for it. Wright inspired Tingling to inspire others. 

As a mentor, Wright was struck by Tingling’s capacity for humility and loyalty. 

“Humility is an all but lost quality these days,” Wright said. “And I believe humility is a quality that serves Xaundrae well in his work as a teacher these days.”

You Never Know

There are days when the children just won’t listen. 

“Sometimes you fee like they’re making progress, and then someone throws a paper at them and they just go off in class. Random things like that throw them off,” Tingling said. “That’s the difficult part.”

“But you never know what they went through the day before,” he added.

He sticks with it from day to day, in hopes of telling children things that would prevent them from making a mistake he once made. 

“You can tell them things that you went through so hopefully they won’t have to,” Tingling said. “Point them in a right direction, give them an idea that they may not have though about, and change the way they look at things.”

“Whatever blessings you have in life, you have to pay for it and give to other people, it’s not just for you,” he said. “Whatever talents you have, pass it on to other people to help bring them along.”

As the first half of the school year goes by, glimmers of hope are seen. The students did well on mid-year essays. 

“They can brainstorm, write a counterclaim, they can write an essay now,” Rurak said. “In the beginning of the school year they couldn’t do that. Xaundrae has made a significant impact.”

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