First Person

An Embarrassment of Riches (Or Why Comparisons Fail)

The Harvest Collegiate High School that I helped to open in September is the result of an inspirational plan written by a brilliant principal, deep and thoughtful work and planning by a team of passionate and experienced educators, and the incredible courses imagined by our teachers. Our school can be proud about these accomplishments.

But Harvest is also equipped with a number of advantages, some born of current school politics and others of luck, that will give us a huge leg up on other schools in New York City.

First, we have our founding staff. While immense time and thought was put into recruitment and interviewing, Harvest had something going for it that few schools do: the opportunity to start something new. Our staff shares a wonderful mix of experienced teachers looking to implement the lessons of decades of teaching and school design with novice teachers with unbridled enthusiasm and visions for what is possible. Without exception, every teacher we have is a rock star in the classroom, or well on his or her way to being one. We have expertise in curriculum development, assessment design, and pedagogy in every discipline. We have former department chairs, professional developers, and published authors. We are also incredibly diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and home background — in fact, we’re the most diverse of any staff I’ve been part of.

We have a second advantage in our students. It takes a special kind of student and parent to take a risk on a new school. Because we are new, our students and their parents bring an enthusiasm and energy that will push the school to be better. The majority of students who chose and were matched with our school had GPAs above 80 and were proficient on middle school exams. Our students’ diversity matches that of our staff’s: 42 percent of students live in Manhattan, and the rest are evenly split among the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Other than a clump in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, a map of our students’ addresses looks like someone just randomly threw darts at a map of the city. The students come from homes speaking nine different languages, and from countries across North and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Third, we have extra money as a new school. Federal Race to the Top funds that could have been used to support struggling schools instead go to us. This allows us to buy new supplies necessary for a new school, but it also gave us money to hire an extra teacher and new computers.

But perhaps our largest advantage is our space.  Situated on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan, right by Union Square, the school could have opened in a better spot in the city. We’re accessible from everywhere. Students and teachers can efficiently get to school on a half dozen subway lines from all corners of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. We’re at a place where all of New York City comes together. Because of that, we can recruit teachers from the entire metropolitan area, giving us a huge advantage over schools on the outskirts of outer boroughs.

The school itself is in better physical shape than any school I’ve seen in the city. Set on the fourth and fifth floors of a commercial building, with a gym and party store beneath us, the space is clean, bright, and neat. Everything works. There are lockers in the halls, an uncommon sight in city schools, and central air conditioning. Sure, there’s not a gym and Harvest will sadly mainly be a metaphor rather than a physical reality, but there is nothing more we could ask for in terms of space for the core mission of a school, which is to facilitate students’ learning.

Yet, we are born with original sin. Harvest is entering space only available because Legacy High School is phasing out. Legacy High School, like us, started as a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools. It tried to be the same type of high school we want to be, in many ways. The city decided it failed. Of all the schools sentenced to phase-out status this year, Legacy put up the biggest fight. Its students organized and got attention. They were ignored.

It sounds like Legacy was on the upswing, but I wasn’t there and do not presume to know anything about the particulars.  Looking at the larger picture, though, I know there is something inherently wrong with the Bloomberg administration’s policy of shutting down schools every year, let alone wearing it as a badge of honor. Schools in the city are assessed on norm-referenced criteria, so there will always be a bottom. Our abundance of riches at Harvest is likely to make it much easier for us to reach the top.  Despite the enthusiasm for our successes, which I’ll share, I hope our school will never be used to put others down.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.