The kids are all right

Shooting for state ed commission, teens launch Student Voice

Nikhil Goyal (second to left) and Matthew Resnick (right) speak at a panel at #140ed on Wednesday, with a live tweet from Resnick as the backdrop.

In suits and ties, they’re spending the summer in making speeches before thousands of people, bolstering their online presence, and pushing for changes to state governance.

But some of them aren’t even old enough to vote.

A handful of New York State high school students have banded together to create Student Voice, an organization devoted to empowering students. Their first project is to get representation on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission, where they say students are imperative to conversations about teacher evaluations and technology policy.

Two of the three students behind Student Voice come from Long Island high schools. The third, Matthew Resnick, is a senior at Manhattan’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School.

“It’s like a detective conduncting a criminal investigation without interviewing the victims,” said Zak Malamed, a recent high school graduate from Great Neck, about the commission. “We are the victims of the system’s flaws, so we should at least have a voice.”

The organization started this spring when Malamed realized that through the internet, he could connect to hundreds of other peers interested in education policy. That’s how he met Resnick and Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Syosset High School, who helped him launch the group.

“The trigger was realizing that I’m not the only one, I’m not an anomaly in wanting to change the education system as it is,” Malamed said.

In mid-May, Malamed organized a Twitter chat with the hashtag #StuVoice. He expected 10 or 15 students to participate, but the numbers were much larger, he said, and adults joined in as well. The experience made Malamed realize that students needed a central outlet to share their ideas about education, and their stories from the ground, and StuVoice.org was born. The site formally launched on Tuesday with short essays from high school and college students from across the country.

In the meantime, he began to collaborate with Resnick and Goyal on Student Voice’s big project — getting student representation on the New York Education Reform Commission. After the trio sent a letter to Cuomo making their case, the governor responded with a letter that said the commission had already capped out at 25 members but encouraged the students to show up at hearings.

Malamed said he was happy just to get a response.

“They responded in a week, and to respond to students in a week, you don’t expect the governor to do that,” he said before quickly adding, “Even though he should!”

The local group is also planning to focus on New York City’s 2013 mayoral election. Goyal, a 17-year-old Syosset resident, said he has not been a fan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies, and he’ll be urging candidates to listen more to students about issues ranging from school closures to social media in the classroom.

Student Voice leader Nikhil Goyal, right, stopped by a GothamSchools party in June to meet teachers and education policy-makers.

He said the next mayor should look to Newark Mayor Cory Booker (with whom Goyal also disagrees on policy points) about how to engage with teens. Booker launched a social media site centered around Newark public policy last month.

“He’s giving teens a voice, and eventually they’re going to be voters,” Goyal said, who has an e-book, “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” coming out next month and speaking engagements lined up in places as far-flung as Austria and India.

Malamed, Resnick, and Goyal all spoke today at the 92nd Street Y during a conference about the influence of social media on education.

Student Voice’s core members don’t always agree. In his book and in letters to the editor published in major newspapers, Goyal makes clear that is critical of current trends in education policy. He panned the trend of toughening teacher evaluations in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, and last week he wrote on his personal blog that the education commission’s New York City meeting had been “overshadowed by ridiculous charter school evangelists and corporate reformers.”

Resnick, on the other hand, subscribes to a more aggressive brand of education policy. In two Huffington Post pieces this spring, he advocated for tougher evaluations, crediting the group Educators 4 Excellence for informing his opinions.

Recently, a representative from Students For Education Reform, a group backed by 50CAN and Teach for America that mobilizes college students, reached out to Student Voice to discuss a partnership, Resnick said.

But Malamed said the group would never come out with a single policy platform — that’s not the point.

“We recognize that a student in Des Moines, Iowa, is going to have different needs and different views than a student in New York City,” Malamed said.

And although starting a national organization won’t look too shabby on a college application, the University of Maryland-bound teenager said that’s not the point, either.

“When you’re a student, a lot of it can become about resume-building and a lot of egos can get in the way,” he said. “So we’re trying to put that behind us.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.