On the afternoon of the March kick-off event for their mentoring program, Thomas Amankwah and Salina Kuoc ordered enough pizza for 20 students. Two showed up.
The two Murray Hill Academy students were hoping to improve attendance at their small transfer school by pairing at-risk freshmen and sophomores with upperclassmen for regular mentoring meetings. The problem was, Amankwah said, “the mentees rarely came to school, [so] it was hard to have them at every meeting.”
They came to that realization while taking part in the Student Voice Collaborative, a program through which students do projects to improve their schools and make policy recommendations to the Department of Education. This year, the 19 student projects ranged from starting a school newspaper to taping posterboard to the back walls of classrooms where shy students could post questions on sticky notes.
At the collaborative’s end-of-year event in late May, Amankwah recalled thinking that he and Kouc had developed a foolproof plan, after finding out that their school’s attendance rate was below the city average and that freshmen and sophomores tended to miss more days than upperclassman. But the reality of making positive change at his school was more complicated than he expected.
“If you’re trying to change your school, you need other people to help,” Amankwah said.
The principal of Murray Hill Academy, Anita Manninen-Felix, nodded as she listened to Amankwah, a sophomore, and Kuoc, a freshman.
“Sometimes change is not immediate,” she said after praising her students’ work. “You learn and you go from there.”
This is the kind of conversation Ari Sussman, an achievement coach for Children First Network 102/113, had in mind when he started the collaborative in 2010. The collaborative is now operated by three networks and has become an outlet for students to share their ideas across schools—much like networks were designed to share ideas across the school system.
After hearing Kuoc and Amankwah’s presentation, Cristal Cruz, a student at Brooklyn Frontiers High School, described a mentoring system she observed during a visit to Park Slope Collegiate. There, mentors acted as assistant teachers, she said, so mentees didn’t have to stay after school to get extra help.
But if mentees aren’t coming to school at all, she suggested, “maybe you can have the mentors call them in the morning” to remind them, or organize students who live in the same neighborhoods to walk to school together.
Sussman, who has seen the collaborative grow over the past four years, said that balancing students’ bold ideas—and his own—with the many pressures students and teachers face each day is one of the challenges he didn’t anticipate when he started the program.
“It’s not a very hard sell to suggest to principals and schools that they should give kids broader and more meaningful roles in their schools,” he said. “But I think teachers and principals are so swamped with their everyday work, and the deluge of requirements that come their way, that there’s just a big lack of capacity.”
Several network leaders and city officials attended the end-of-year event at the New York Public Library. From the back of the room, Luis Espinal, an alum of the collaborative who now attends Lafayette College, looked on with approval.
He said that making recommendations to the department and doing a project at his school made him more comfortable communicating with adults and more confident promoting his own ideas.
“It’s cool to be able to do something in your school, to be taken seriously and feel like you have some kind of power,” he said.
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