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.

get out the vote

Can schools encourage students to be more involved citizens? A new study suggests yes they can.

Democracy Prep charter network superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 admissions lottery event.

In a city of roughly 1,800 schools, many have names that have little to do with what students experience.

Not so for Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools that a new study concludes makes students far more likely to vote once they turn 18.

The study, conducted by independent researchers commissioned by Democracy Prep, took advantage of New York City’s charter school admissions rules to examine the impact of applying to, getting accepted to, and enrolling in the network’s schools on later civic participation.

Looking at more than a thousand students who applied between 2007 and 2015 who were old enough to vote in 2016, the researchers found that just being selected in the admissions lottery was correlated with a slight increase in voting rates. Students who were chosen voted 6 percent more often than students who were not.

The impact was much greater on students who were chosen and actually enrolled: They voted 24 percent more often than students who applied but never got a chance to attend.

The findings suggest that Democracy Prep is achieving its explicit goal of promoting civic participation. They also offer one answer to the question of whether charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, undermine democracy.

“Democracy Prep provides a test case of whether charter schools can successfully serve the foundational purpose of public education—preparation for citizenship—even while operating outside the direct control of elected officials,” the researchers write. “With respect to the critical civic participation measures of registration and voting, the answer is yes.”

Seth Andrew, who started the network with a single middle school in Harlem in 2006, said he was pleased by the findings — and unsurprised, because the network has baked civic participation into its culture and academic program. Students must take on a personal “Change the World” project and pass the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate.

“This idea of ‘change the world’ was very central to what we were trying to get our kids prepared and excited to do,” he said.

Creating more engaged citizens takes more than just adding a civics class, said Katie Duffy, the CEO of Democracy Prep. Schools have to make democracy a part of the daily culture, she said.

“The more you talk about the importance of voting, the importance of elections, the importance of advocacy,” she said, “the more it becomes ingrained in our kids.”

The network has also long used Election Day — when district-run schools are often closed so their buildings can be used as polling stations — as a teachable moment.

In 2008, Democracy Prep students spent the day working to get out the vote in their neighborhoods. Four years later, Democracy Prep schools were among the few housed in city space that got special permission to stay open — and the network sent students out to advance the “Vote for Somebody” campaign it had kicked off in a catchy viral video. The next year, students promoted a different message — “I can’t vote but you can” — in an effort to boost the city’s 11 percent primary election voter participation rate.

The network’s influence extends far beyond its students. In 2012, six years into the network’s existence, officials estimated that students had helped 5,000 New Yorkers register to vote. Now, the network runs 22 schools in five states.

Andrew said the study’s findings about the impact of the network — which he left in 2012 to work on other civic engagement initiatives, including at the White House — offer only a start at a time when the United States lags behind other developed countries in voter turnout.

“I was thrilled with the outcome,” said Andrew. “But the as the guy that founded Democracy Prep I feel like there’s a whole lot of room to grow.”

bills bills bills

New legislation aims to diversify New York City’s elite high schools. Here are 3 reasons to be skeptical.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
State Senator Jamaal Bailey unveiled legislation to boost diversity at the city's specialized high schools on Thursday.

Legislation introduced Thursday aimed at integrating New York City’s specialized high schools skirted one big issue: the admissions test.

Instead, the bills would create a new citywide test for sixth graders designed to help them prepare for the exam; establish a commission to study the admissions process and issue recommendations; and require that all specialized high schools admit some students who just missed the cutoff score.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing more to allow more students access to the test,” said Jamaal Bailey, a state senator who represents parts of the Bronx and crafted the legislation.

Specialized high schools have remained starkly segregated for years, despite pledges from Mayor Bill de Blasio to promote diversity at them. Last month, the education department announced black and Hispanic students accounted for just 10.4 percent of offers to the eight specialized schools that admit students based on a single exam — a number that has gone essentially unchanged since de Blasio took office more than four years ago. (Citywide, nearly 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.)

Standing on the steps of City Hall, and flanked by the alumni foundation president at Brooklyn Tech — a specialized school — Bailey unveiled a legislative package he said would help move the needle.

But there are good reasons to be skeptical of the plan. Here are three of them.

1. Experts say changing the admissions process is crucial to integrating specialized schools. This legislation leaves it alone.

Critics of the current admissions system argue that it favors students who have time and resources to prepare for an admissions test that serves as the sole gatekeeper for the ultra-selective schools. And researchers at New York University have shown that changing the admissions requirements to offer admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school is one of the few surefire ways to “substantially change” the schools’ demographics.

2. The proposal doubles down on a diversity program that is already in place — and isn’t making a dent.

Bailey’s legislation requires each specialized high school to participate in the Discovery program, which allows a small set of students to gain admission even if they score just below the cutoff. The city has already expanded that program to include every specialized school and it has helped a shrinking share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. And even if it helped more underrepresented students, its impact would likely be small: Just 4 percent of all specialized school admissions offers were issued through the program last year.

3. The bill assumes preparation will help underserved students gain admission, but the city’s test prep programs haven’t made a big difference.

The legislation creates a citywide test for sixth graders that would mimic the current exam for eighth graders, giving students a head start on preparing for the exam while simultaneously increasingly awareness of it. “Many children in my district don’t know about the test,” he said. But the city has already boosted public test prep programs (which some students have said are not high-quality) and expanded outreach to increase the number of students who take the exam. None of those efforts have changed the racial balance at specialized high schools, which are just as segregated as they were before those programs were expanded.

Bailey, who is himself a graduate of Bronx Science, a specialized school, acknowledged that his proposals may not radically change the demographics at the elite schools. But he said he is “not averse” to broader changes and said he imagined the new commission created by his legislation could recommend more systemic changes.

“I believe they will pay off,” he said. “It’s more opportunities and more information for children.”