what's cooking?

At a Rikers Island school, inmates turn into "cheftestants"

Vivian TK, 38, makes spicy chicken pastelitos in a Riker's Island training kitchen today.
A student makes spicy chicken pastelitos in a training kitchen at Island Academy, a high school for incarcerated students on Rikers Island.

A clock ticked down, and two teams of women in chef’s jackets scurried around a kitchen, rolling pastry dough and sauteing fish. Corn chowder simmered on a stove and buttermilk biscuits baked in the oven. When the clock hit zero, the anxious cooks presented their creations to accomplished visiting chefs, who tallied their judgments of the meals’ creativity and flavor.

But many of today’s “cheftestants” may have to wait a while to fulfill their culinary dreams — for now, they are incarcerated students at the city’s Island Academy school at Riker’s Island correctional facility. This cooking contest was part of one of their classes, and the chief celebrity judge was Alain Sailhac, the former dean of the French Culinary Institute.

The city runs two schools on Riker’s Island. The Island Academy enrolls mainly students between the ages of 16 and 18, while the other school, Horizon Academy, serves slightly older students. Both schools operate in several locations throughout the detention facilities on the island, with sites for male students awaiting sentencing, a second for men who have already been sentenced and a third for all of the female students.

At Island Academy, all of the teenage students are required to take the culinary arts class, along with English, math and science courses. Adult inmates can also choose to take courses at the school.

The school has offered the cooking program for more than a decade, but today was the first time it became a contest. Of the roughly 50 female students enrolled in the program, two teams of six students each made it to the final round today. It came down to a battle of the ages — an team of teenage students matched up against a team of adults.

Mark Sauerhoff, a chef who launched the school’s culinary arts program and who now teaches the adolescent classes, said that the class allows the students to temporarily step away from the reality of their confinement.

“When they enter my room, Rikers stays out,” Sauerhoff said. “They enter ‘Sauerhoff-land.’ All the beefs, all the issues stay outside.”

“When they come in my room, they are culinary students,” he added. “Period.”

Culinary arts is particularly well-matched to the Rikers Island programs, Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro said. Of the 100,000 people who pass through Rikers Island each year, 85 percent are released instead of being transferred to state correctional facilities. The cooking program provides a “forward-looking approach” to inmates’ education, Schriro said, giving instruction that students can jump into mid-stream and that gives them skills they can use when they leave.

One of the teen students, Ricka, 18, said that Sauerhoff has been helping her research Manhattan culinary schools and training programs to apply to when she is released. She anticipates being released soon, after having been at Rikers since November on arson charges. In the kitchen, Ricka said, she found a team spirit and resilience that has been missing elsewhere in her life in the detention center.

“You know what [Sauerhoff] taught me? That when you cook and you mess up, you can always fix it,” she said. “That’s the point of cooking.”

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.