Q&A

Students helping students: How free pizza started a Brooklyn teen’s career helping his peers get to college

PHOTO: CARA NYC
Jamel Burgess, far left, stands with other youth advocates.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Jamel Burgess wasn’t sure why some people went to college and others never seemed to make it.

Now, he’s well aware of the barriers that keep students from higher education, from the big — family strife — to the relatively small, like CUNY’s application fee.

That knowledge has been hard won. Burgess, 25, has spent 10 years working with students hoping to get into and succeed in college, a process that started at the Franklin K. Lane campus when he was a student there getting its Student Success Center off the ground.

That center trains students to help peers through the college admissions process by means of workshops and one-on-one help sessions. The centers now operate in 40 city schools.

Chalkbeat spoke with Burgess, an organizer with the program Future of Tomorrow, just moments before he took the stage as a guest of honor at the 10-year anniversary celebration of College Access: Research & Action’s “Right to College” program. CARA has been involved with the student success center project since its inception in 2007.

In an interview, Burgess explained how he first got involved with youth advocacy and spoke of his own unexpected path to the New School, where he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree, as well as his passions for music, activism, and pizza.

Describe how you first got involved with youth organizing.
I grew up attending the Cypress Hills Collegiate Prep High School. At the time, Future of Tomorrow was recruiting students to come to meetings and basically just saying they had a safe space with food where students could come and learn how to be active in their school community. What really got my attention was the free food part. I dropped into a few meetings and it turned out to be pretty cool.

What motivated you to keep attending the meetings?
The organizer was running political education workshops and talking about things that were taking place in the city and how it impacts us as students and our schools. I found that interesting because in school we didn’t really get to talk about the bigger picture of things. We were always focused on testing, testing, testing and things in a textbook, but this was a different type of education and I really learned a lot. And the pizza was good. So I stuck around.

Something I can remember clearly was looking at how school policy and discipline codes are written, and how youth voices weren’t at the decision table. Young people are impacted by a lot of our discipline code, such as the policy to not have phones in school, the policy to have metal detectors in schools, cops in schools, Regents testing and things like that.

What were the first campaigns you got involved with?
When I started with Future of Tomorrow, the students were already working on the Student Success Center campaign. I sat on a hiring committee with a few other students to interview counselors and identify who we wanted to work at the centers. And we also worked closely with the Urban Youth Collaborative, which is made up of other youth organizations, on a city-wide level. The first centers were then open at Bushwick Campus in 2007 and at the [Franklin K.] Lane Campus in 2008.

Did the program directly impact you?
Yes, I was a youth organizer my senior year and had my own youth leader. She basically talked to me during lunch and at times I would slack off because, honestly, that’s what kids do, kids are kids. She would track me down and make sure I was on top of my stuff and I met with her during lunch or after school.

I remember her forcing me to make sure I checked my email to see if colleges are replying and emailing me back. She was really supportive in my transition to college and I’m really glad I had her. I went on to Queensborough Community College where I studied music production.

I have three brothers and only one of them actually made it to college, my younger brother. A year or two years after he graduated high school, I kept having conversations with him about getting into college and then finally he enrolled into Queensborough Community College. That’s also an important thing to highlight: He got to college a little later but still made it.

We come from the same background, the same circumstances, so I often think what could have happened if he had had a youth leader or student success center.

And why music production? Is that another one of your passions?
I remember telling my youth leader and my college counselor that the only thing I would ever want to study in school was music. I wasn’t really an A student. School didn’t really move me, but music did.

My school definitely did not have music programs. A lot of my music that I got to experiment as a young person was in my mother’s church, but there were a few opportunities in high school, like talent shows, where I got to showcase my music. Everyone knew me as the music guy. I wrote lyrics, I wrote songs, and produced beats.

And I am not back burnering my music now. I’m studying at the New School where I’m basically trying to combine my passions. I’m self-designing a major around art and activism, looking at the ways we can use music and art to create social change in communities.

Where do you see youth advocacy in your future?
I think I definitely eventually want to run my own nonprofit. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I can keep dreaming it. But I definitely want that. Supporting my community with a strong focus on youth leadership and the arts and advocacy as well. And to continue making great music.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”