homework and activism

NYC high school students are planning to walk out of class Tuesday. This Bronx teen helped organize them

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Hebh Jamal

In between physics and history on Monday afternoon, Hebh Jamal, a senior at the Beacon School, was tapping out text messages and tweets to her fellow student organizers. She fielded questions about when and where the next protest would happen, doled out tips for organizing fellow classmates, and shared words of advice about the consequences students could face.

On Tuesday at noon, all that effort will pay off, she hopes, when students from across New York City walk out of their classes and stream into Foley Square in downtown Manhattan. Jamal said students from 10 different schools will join a protest against Donald Trump’s recent executive order suspending the country’s refugee program and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim nations.

More than just a protest, Jamal hopes the event will also be a show of solidarity and give teens a sense of empowerment to take on everything from Islamophobia to student debt.

“New York City has thousands of immigrant students, and families that have visas and green cards,” said Jamal, 17. “These issues collectively will affect the younger generation and we should be able to have a say in it.”

Jamal’s Facebook profile features a picture of her at a rally, with protest signs hoisted in the background. The Bronx teen describes herself with just a few words: “Muslim. Palestinian. American. Because I can be all three at once.” A heart emoji caps the description.

Jamal, who also advocates for school integration, is already something of a veteran organizer. She was also behind a student walkout in the first week after Trump was elected — as well as a rally that attracted people of all ages to Foley Square last week.

In a tweet, New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca shared a picture of Hebh speaking at that rally. He called her performance “inspiring and fierce.”

“Keep making your voice heard,” he encouraged.

Tuesday’s event was put together through word of mouth and social media posts. Immediately after Trump signed the immigration order, which is now temporarily halted as it makes its way through the courts, Jamal got to work.

“I went to the mosque the next day, and the conversation at the mosque with my very close friends was: ‘If my family gets deported, who am I going to stay with? Am I next? Am I going to be able to go to college after this?’” she said. “It was scary to hear that from people who are my age.”

Within days, she called a meeting at school, created a Facebook event and sent an online invite to some friends — who shared it with their friends. Soon, more than 2,000 young people said they were interested in the walkout.

The response has kept Jamal busy. Most days, she leaves her home in the Bronx by 6:30 a.m., sometimes working on her class assignments on the train. After school, she heads to her job at a nonprofit that focuses on equity issues, where she helps write policy briefs and newsletters. She doesn’t usually return home until 7 p.m.

“It’s pretty hectic,” she admitted.

On Tuesday, she’ll be missing history and physics class when she walks off campus. She’s not sure what assignments her teachers will give, but she’s not too worried about a missed lecture. Jamal said that protest should involve some type of sacrifice.

“There are better things to worry about in life than grades,” she said.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.