Learning With a Side of Lamb

At the county fair, a shot at learning for online high schoolers

PHOTO: Jeffrey Djoum
Zaria Schaffer, a sophomore at Denver Online High School, poses with her lamb Leroy.

The sight of two high school students in worn-in blue jeans, huge belt buckles and dusty boots, posing for photos alongside the lambs they’ve raised, isn’t unusual at the Adams County Fair.

But it’s not how they usually dress. Destiny Gonzalez and Zaria Schaffer are city kids, and they were wearing borrowed boots and belt buckles.

The two are rising juniors and seniors at Denver Online High School, and the four months they’ve spent raising their lambs, Bonnie and Leroy, are part of an effort to give students an unusual opportunity not typically offered at traditional schools, as well as to build bonds between students and staff.

“You’ve got to look the part,” said Kaci Sintek, the school’s marketing and communications specialist. Sintek, who raised livestock and did shows herself, loaned the girls her boots and belt buckles. She helped the girls raise and train the two lambs as part of the school’s 4-H Lamb Project.

“We didn’t know what it would be like,” Sintek said. “We learned together.”

Finding ways for students to get face time with other kids and teachers is a major concern in online education. Denver Online High School confronts that issue head-on by offering independent studies like the one Gonzalez and Schaffer did through a partnership with the Urban Farm at Stapleton.

Sintek said the school’s principal, Mike Clem, encourages students and staff to work their passions into learning and teaching. A grant Sintek applied for covered all costs — including feeding, watering and housing Bonnie and Leroy.

Gonzalez is not new to farm life. Her uncle owned a ranch where she helped him with chickens and horses. None of that, however, prepared her for the task of building the lambs’ pen and training the newborns.

“Training was the hardest,” Gonzalez said as she petted Bonnie. “At first all they did was kick us and run away.”

The girls meticulously recorded the animals’ eating habits and weight, as well as trained them to walk in showings. They had two presentations in showmanship — where Schaffer and Gonzalez showed off their handling of the lambs. Schaffer showed off Leroy’s skillful bracing, a technique used to show off their muscles.

Bonnie, and Leroy started at just 65lbs and 78lbs. By the time they were auctioned off at the fair, they weighed 105lbs and 122lbs and sold for a combined $1,500, which will be split between the girls to pay for college.

After a summer full of farm work and training, the girls said they would do it all over again. Sintek said she hopes the program can expand to include more kids next year.

“It was rewarding to watch the girls,” Sintek said. “Work ethic and self-confidence grew immensely in these students.”


talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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