suspended suspension

City touts justice reform, other Young Men's Initiative outcomes

Jim St. Germain (second from left), who attended a Boystown school, said he thought the "Close to Home" law would help juvenile offenders.

More than 4,000 black and Latino young men have already been affected by the constellation of programs and services in the city’s Young Men’s Initiative, Mayor Bloomberg announced today.

Over one thousand young black and Latino men found jobs through expanded training and placement programs, according to a city report about the initiative’s first year. Hundreds of men between the ages of 17 and 24 received special instruction aimed at boosting their reading skills. And dozens fewer students were suspended at 20 schools that piloted a less punitive approach to discipline.

But it was a change that has so far involved just 50 young men that dominated Bloomberg’s attention at a press conference to tout the progress.

When the Young Men’s Initiative kicked off in August 2011, Bloomberg said the city would lobby for juvenile justice reform to stop young offenders in New York City from being sent to private detention centers upstate. The “Close to Home” law that does just that passed in March.

Already, 50 juvenile offenders have been relocated from upstate facilities to residential treatment centers in the city. As many as 250 will arrive before the end of the year, city officials said.

Joined at a press conference by Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs and Deputy Schools Chancellor Dorita Gibson at Passages Academy, one of five alternative schools expected to enroll the new arrivals, Bloomberg said the shift would give court-involved students a better chance of graduating from high school. For the first time this year, the credits the students earn during their time at the centers will count towards their high school graduation requirements.

“If these kids don’t get an education, what’s their future? They’re going to at some point get out of the prison system and aren’t going to be able to make a living,” Bloomberg said. “Even if they got an education [upstate] they got back to the city and it wasn’t accredited, so they fell behind.”

Passages Academy and the other “alternative learning centers” that will enroll the teens relocated under Close to Home serve students who have been convicted of non-violent crimes or are awaiting trials, and some who are undergoing long-term suspensions from their high schools.

Principal Stephen Wilder said the ratio of teachers to students is 10 to one, and all teachers are licensed employees of the Department of Education.

“The curriculum is aligned to the Common Core and we’re offering same high level of expectations you find at a typical school in the community,” Wilder said.

Jim St. Germain, a 23 year-old Brooklyn native who attended Passages between 2005 and 2008 after he broke the law as a teen, said the program gave him the motivation he needed to graduate from high school and college. He is now a student at Albany Law School.

“I was able to step away from an environment that promotes negativity to an environment that promotes positivity,” he said of Passages and Boys Town, the residential center with which it is affiliated. He added, “Most of the kids know that this is a chance they won’t get again in life.”

In many ways, St. Germain epitomizes the New Yorkers the Young Men’s Initiative is trying to help: Raised by his grandmother, St. Germain, who is black, said he felt he “was not cut out for school,” and thought his future was to play professional football until he broke his hand at 14. He said the city’s programs targeting youth in the justice system and providing mentors to boys of color could inspire more to make smarter life decisions.

“It’s really easy to give up on our kids who are on the streets committing crime, but it is hard to do something for them, to help them pay taxes, have jobs and go to school,” he said.

Close to Home and other juvenile justice reforms comprise only one prong of the Young Men’s Initiative. The initiative is also aimed at improving educational outcomes for male students of color.

Already, the Department of Education has begun giving high schools extra credit on their annual assessments when those students make academic progress. Schools have also started to benefit from a literacy program and a middle school mentoring initiative administered by other city agencies. And after seeing suspension rates drop by 38 percent in 20 schools that piloted changes to discipline policies, the department has tweaked the discipline code for all students.

But the main education initiative, the $24 million Expanded Success Initiative, is only now getting into full swing. This spring, the city picked 40 schools that have a track record of success with black and Latino students to receive extra funds for services geared toward college readiness. In exchange, researchers will study the schools’ practices with the goal of sharing the best ones with other schools.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.