four years later

Pomp, circumstance, and Snapple for Democracy Prep grads

Democracy Prep graduates holding diplomas and Snapple.
Democracy Prep graduates holding diplomas and Snapple.

Unsurprisingly for a school that prides itself on taking students on trips in four continents before graduation, Democracy Prep Charter High School covered a lot of ground in its first commencement.

The three-hour ceremony, held Monday at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, featured accolades for the 46 graduating seniors, a ceremonial passing of the hat for the charter network’s founder, and a video screening by the secretary general of the United Nations.

Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, delivered the keynote address. After speaking about the value of good education, he told graduates he has “always dreamed of appearing live at the Apollo,” then whipped out a music video of Beyonce singing in a U.N. music video.

The video was a humorous interlude in a ceremony packed with pomp and circumstance. Graduates wore yellow caps and gowns to reflect the school’s colors, and after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they and everyone in the audience were were instructed to “place your hands over your logos” to recite the Democracy Prep pledge, which begins, “I pledge allegiance to my future …”

That future is different from what it would have been had the students not attended Democracy Prep for middle and high school, school officials said during the graduation ceremony. In one video shown at the event, a senior said many of her classmates from elementary school are not graduating from high school now, and she credited Democracy Prep for making the difference for her.

Of the 80 students who entered the high school in 2009, all from Democracy Prep middle schools, 46 students graduated on Monday, each with acceptances to four-year colleges in hand. School officials could not immediately say what happened to the other 34 students who entered four years ago but said some remained enrolled at the school while others had transferred away.

The seniors are not the only ones moving on. It was also a big day for the network’s founding chief executive officer, Seth Andrew, as he handed over the reins — in the form of his hallmark yellow cap — to Katie Duffy, who will serve as the network’s new leader. When this year’s graduates decided to attend Democracy Prep, Andrew said, “there was no school, there was no building.” Today the network’s schools serve 1,600 students.

Andrew is now preparing to launch Alumni Revolution, a new nonprofit designed to support first-generation college students through college.

The challenge of making the transition from a small, tight-knit high school to the wider world of college was a major theme of the graduation ceremony.

Sixth-grader Kaity Fernandez explained that she and the other non-seniors at the graduation had earned their seats through good behavior. Students have to earn their seats in the classroom as well, a tradition referenced more than once during graduation speeches.

“We don’t run the school like a democracy, we prepare you for one,” Andrew told the graduates.

“As you graduate our relationship will change,” English teacher Damion Clark told the graduates. “After today we are fellow adults, colleagues.”

Graduates said that’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Geneses Bello, who’s headed to McDaniel College in Maryland next year, said she is anxious about losing the structure and support that Democracy Prep provides.

“I’m nervous about time management, not having the support system I have here, and being on my own,” she said.

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Several juniors said that seeing the seniors makes them more excited to be seniors and go to college. But sixth graders, wowed by the Apollo, said it’s hard to imagine being as independent as the seniors will have to be next year.

“Now if you need help they’re going to come and tutor you,” Michael Jones explained. “And they ask questions to see if you’re getting the train of thought. In sixth grade they tell you what to do and how to do it. When you get to college you have to figure it out on your own.”

Already, Democracy Prep’s first set of graduates are taking advantage of their new authority. The student graduation speaker, Steven Medina, who will attend Middlebury College on a full scholarship next year, said Andrew had broken one promise that he made to the founding class: When they were in middle school, Medina recalled, Andrew had promised students a Snapple machine if they earned it, and the machine never materialized.

Later, Andrew made good on his promise by rolling out tables laden with bottles of Snapples for the graduation class, who were grateful for a drink on the hottest day yet this year.

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. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”