rapper's delight

They might have 99 problems, but Regents prep ain't one

New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, helps coach 11th grade U.S. history students for next week's Regents exam.
New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, helps coach 11th grade U.S. history students for next week

It was exactly a week before juniors at New Design High School would sit for their American History Regents exam, but you might not know it from the hip-hop beats emanating from a stereo at the front of the class.

But you’d know by listening to the song’s lyrics, which discussed essay-writing strategy.

And after the song ended, one student kept going. “Don’t just describe — analyze,” he rapped. “Write what you mean, discuss the theme.”

The class was in the midst of reviewing the U.S. History Regents curriculum using a pilot program called Fresh Prep, which wrote its own hip-hop songs to help students remember facts, concepts and test-taking strategies.

The program’s creators are trying to prove that music and arts can help boost student test scores in core subjects like history and English. They’ve already seen some success: When they ran the program on a smaller scale last year, the vast majority of students passed their exams.

Listen to one of Fresh Prep’s U.S. History Regents songs, “Turn of the Century.” You can listen to all of the program’s songs on its website.

Organizers won’t begin to know until they have this year’s Regents pass rates at New Design, the site of Fresh Prep’s first school-wide pilot. I visited the school the week before students sat for the exam, and we’ll check back when the results are in.

A musical experiment

New Design is a small school co-founded in 2003 by the city and Urban Arts Partnership, a non-profit that runs arts programs in needy schools. The school currently has a 70 percent  four-year graduation rate, which school leaders are hoping to boost.

High school students need to pass five Regents exams with a grade of 65 or higher in order to graduate with a regular diploma. The exams are one of the biggest obstacles to graduation for many New Design students, said Philip Courtney, the head of Urban Arts. Last school year, 66 percent of the school’s students passed the English Regents and around half passed the math and American history exams. Just 39 percent passed the Global History test, commonly regarded as the most difficult.

Last July, New Design and Urban Arts launched Fresh Prep as a remedial program for 30 students preparing to take the Global History Regents exam. All of the students had failed the exam between one and five times before; the average number of times the students had failed the test was three. They spent 12 six-hour days working through through Fresh Prep’s songs and activities.

The day after the program ended, the students sat for the exam. Nearly 80 percent of the students passed, and all of the special education students in the group did.

Another small pilot followed last fall for the English curriculum. This time, hoping to prove a correlation between Fresh Prep and high pass rates, organizers compared the scores of students who prepared with the hip-hop program to a similar group who didn’t. Around 94 percent of the students who had gone through the program passed the exam, compared to half the students who hadn’t used the curriculum to prepare.

The program now has songs and class activities written for the Global History, U.S. History and English exams, and for the first time, all New Design students in those classes went through the program for two weeks before the exams were given. If the students do well, Urban Arts hopes to expand the program to other schools. Organizers also hope to expand the curriculum from its current form as a two-week cram session to something that can be used throughout the year.

Fresh Prep is taking an unusual, data-driven approach to arts in education. Urban Arts is the first arts group to be funded by the Robin Hood foundation, in part because the group was beginning to prove its effectiveness with test scores, Courtney said.

But Scott Conti, New Design’s principal, said that the program helps students with more than just memorizing facts for a one-day test.

“What we’re really packaging to the kids is how to do study skills,” Conti said, explaining that the idea is to help integrate studying into the interests and activities students already have. “You can say ‘study study study,’ but if you package it to them in a way they’ll go for, it’s much better.”

“Music makes you want to”

In addition to the original songs, the prep course also includes activities designed to incorporate the energetic, competitive nature of hip-hop culture, said Tracee Worley, a former teacher at New Design and now a curriculum specialist at Urban Arts. Many of the class activities are game-based, and workbooks reference rapper and actor Will Smith’s 90s-era television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and feature its characters, whom students seemed to recognize even though the show went off the air when they were toddlers.

Students in an American history class at New Design divided into teams for a review contest a week before the test. A student stood with flashcards, describing the terms and concepts they contained without naming them. The rest of the class racked up points for being the first to correctly identify the term.

“People who think that government shouldn’t get involved in business…”
—”Laissez faire!”
“This has to do with Turkey and Greece.”
—”The Truman Doctrine!”

Kashawn Henry, 16, was part of the original group that went through Fresh Prep to pass the Global History Regents exam last summer, and used the program to prepare for the American history exam this year.

“Some of the things catch my ear,” he said. “The fact that it’s music makes you want to listen to it.”

“I’m seeing students really getting into it, studying in the hallway, memorizing the songs,” Worley said. “I think it creates a lighter atmosphere for something that’s incredibly heavy and prone to inducing anxiety.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”