Close Up

Why are these Bronx ninth-graders holding baby chicks?

Students at Equality Charter High School pose with their fuzzy friends.

In our second installment of “Close Up,” Chalkbeat explores the photo above in a conversation with Equality Charter High School’s science department head, Amrita Bhattacharyya. Remember to send your photos to if you’d like your school to be considered for the column.

Tell us about this photo.

These are ninth-graders at Equality Charter High School. Last spring, the class received 20 fertilized eggs, which they incubated for 21 days to study embryonic growth and development, while considering the care and attention required to develop new life. During this process, the students discussed sustainable farming, waste management from animal products, and the humane treatment of these animals, drawing on a recent visit to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Why use chicks to teach students about reproduction?

First, their gestation period is only 21 days. You can actually see through the shells by using a method called “candling” where students hold flashlights up to the egg and see movement and growth. This also helps the students visualize and have a tangible example of cell processes like mitosis. They don’t have to trust my word to see that development is happening — they can see it for themselves.

These are city kids. How did they respond to the chicks?

Like any kid would! Who doesn’t love a newborn … anything? Some of them were afraid to hold them, but every single student was engaged and curious about the process. They self-corrected, helped their peers, and practiced working collaboratively and compassionately with one another. It was especially lovely to see some of the students who may give you a hard time in the classroom soften up around the chicks. Or to see the student who doesn’t speak much during class ask a question about them. The whole experience was just awesome for both the students and myself.

What happened to the chicks at the end of the school year?

We don’t keep the chicks for the remainder of the year. By that time, they would be fully grown chickens as their cycle of development is much more rapid than ours. After 10 days, we took them up to a farm upstate. Many students asked to take them home and in the past they would do so over the weekend, but this year I kept them at the school as we had weekend classes and I was able to come in and care for them. The chicks got tons of visitors over the weekend, too.

How does this class help your students?

Aside from the academic benefit of seeing lessons come to life, this experience is something students remember. Every year, they ask if I am doing the project with my new students. They ask to come in and teach a portion, or make sure the “newbies” are taken care of. I think sometimes when we are teaching, especially a course where there is a Regents exam or some state exam attached to the class, we forget how much the opportunity to “care” can draw out the most beautiful sides of students.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.