prep school

In pursuit of college readiness, a course about "Assimilation"

Mitch Kurz leads students through a true/false quiz about the psychology of dreams.

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Kurz worked as advertising executive before cashing out— to the tune of millions of dollars — and getting involved in education. Already a trustee of Teach for America, he joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2002 and now serves on the board of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Kurz believes city students fear college and sometimes struggle once they get there because they lack the vocabulary of the dominant college-going culture. At least at selective schools and schools outside of New York City, first-generation college students from urban high schools are a rarity, he said.

“We know adapting to the social environment of college, away from home, can be forbidding for tons of kids. [Alumni] would come back and say, ‘In my dorm room or in the hall or the cafeteria, these conversations would take place, and I never felt like I could participate in them,'” Kurz said.

So he designed a class to give the students something he thought they lacked: social capital, or, as he describes it, “All the non-academic stuff that makes up social intelligence, small talk, making conversation — even something as mundane as table manners. … Many young people have this, depending on their upbringing, but almost none of our students have it.”

Kurz’s recipe for social capital involves a crash course in foreign languages, religion, and schmoozing, in addition to other more academic subjects meant to introduce students to features of the liberal arts, such as sociology and psychology. His syllabus assigns each week a big idea, such as “happiness” or “social currency,” and breaks it down into wide-ranging content.

One day, students learned the rules of dreidel, the game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On another, they simulated eating at a formal dinner party, using plastic silverware and plates to practice dining etiquette. This week, Kurz used photos from his advertising days to teach students the meaning of the golden ratio — a mathematical concept related to image proportions.

The curriculum can seem to careen from one subject to the next, but researchers say the approach has important value.

“The premise of the class is solid,” said Will Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies college readiness. “The idea is supported by research that there are social adjustment challenges first-generation students face — particularly when they go to highly selective colleges and universities where there is a much smaller group of minority, working class students and a lack of information about how to function in college in ways that require familiarity with white, upper-middle-class culture.”

But Perez — who researches education, race and cultural capital — also cautioned that a course meant to explicitly introduce students to those cultural differences would necessarily walk a fine line between teaching students tools for adaptation and suggesting that their own cultural backgrounds are inferior.

The course title would suggest that Kurz aims to help his students become more like the middle-class children of professionals that he expects them to encounter in college. But he said his goal is not to press the students to change themselves but to equip them with the tools to engage in cultural “code-shifting” — altering their behavior based on where they are and who they are with — so they can fit into unfamiliar settings when they want to.

Past lessons in Kurz's class include "How to make an elevator pitch," and "What is Hannukah?"

It’s a mission that resonates with Lisa Delpit, an education researcher who has argued that educators should initiate minority students into the “culture of power” through explicit instruction — not only so that they can succeed in it but also so that they can ultimately influence it.

“I don’t want us to limit where kids can go,” Delpit said. “I think some of the things he’s talking about, students may or may not see in a college setting, but they certainly could come up in some settings. There is power in learning about other settings and other cultures.”

It is less apparent how the course materials may be relevant to students who do not choose to attend liberal arts colleges outside of the city, or do not participate in formal networking events. But Delpit say these subjects can hold value regardless of what students pursue after high school.

Luisa Diaz, a 2011 graduate of Bronx Center, said Kurz let students know right away that he wanted them to head off to college with their own identities intact.

“The first thing he said was, “In no way, shape, or form am I trying to exclude some cultures and include others,” she said. “And everybody in the class’s culture in some way or another was incorporated into the discussions.” For example, Diaz said, Kurz made sure everyone had a crash course in Spanish vocabulary — creating an opportunity for Latino students to share about their backgrounds.

Diaz, now a freshman at Hunter College, said some of the lessons have already come up countless times in her post-high school life.

“We’re studying in college right now the different stages of the human being — id, alter-ego, psychology,” she said. “I came into my religion class once and that was the first thing [the professor] put on the board, and I was the first one to raise her hand. Everyone was in awe, and I was saying ‘Thank you, Mr. Kurz,’ in my head.”

Kurz said he takes his own lessons to heart by challenging himself to leave his comfort zone — in his case, by carrying a grade-book stored in a colorful folder featuring the face of teen pop icon Justin Bieber.

“One of the ways you can make yourself feel more welcome in an environment is to make fun of yourself,” he explained to the students when they laughed about the notebook. “Everyone is more comfortable with people who don’t take themselves so seriously.”

Laura Rivera, a senior, said Kurz’s class inspired her to apply to colleges outside of New York City.

“It gave me confidence,” she said. “And it’s helped me connect all my classes together. At first I thought, maybe I want to stay in New York, have my mom do my laundry and cook. Now, all my colleges are ‘aways,’ with exception of CUNY.”

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

summer intern

What do Nobu 57, the MTA and the DOE have in common? They provided internships in the city’s latest push for career education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

Hundreds of New York City high school students are wrapping up internships in construction, hospitality, and business, the city announced on Thursday.

The 600 city-funded internships kicked off a new initiative called the Career and Technical Education Industry Scholars Program, which is part of New York City’s push to expand career education. Top city and state education officials are all backing a push for more CTE — but also acknowledge they’ve had trouble starting new programs.

Programs like this, which also included jobs in transportation, media and culinary arts, are one way the city is trying to fill in the gaps.

“We’re preparing students for their future beyond high school, and giving them an opportunity to practice and hone the valuable skills they’ve learned in the classroom,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

City and state officials have been ratcheting up their support for CTE in recent weeks. In an uncharacteristic joint public appearance last month, the top three city and state education policymakers all visited a school in Queens to back career education and talk through obstacles to its expansion.

Recent data have shown that even students who do have access to CTE in school often miss out on opportunities to work in their field before graduation.

Despite New York City’s role as a business and tech hub, fewer than 1,600 city students completed internships in 2014, according to a report prepared for the Partnership for New York City. A 2016 Manhattan Institute report found that less than 2 percent of all New York City CTE students and less than 5 percent of high school seniors completed one.

At their meeting in Queens, top city and state officials noted that the process for winning state approval for a CTE program — a comprehensive review that allows schools to implement a multi-year curriculum — can be frustratingly lengthy, and doesn’t allow schools to keep pace as industries shift.

State officials have also increased the importance of CTE in recent years by allowing students to earn a diploma by substituting a career-focused track for one of the Regents exams typically required to graduate.

They have also suggested they are interested in providing more graduation options for students that require work experience. Still, it remains unclear whether enough schools offer the necessary courses to make this a real option for many students.