Q&A

Students helping students: How free pizza started a Brooklyn teen’s career helping his peers get to college

PHOTO: CARA NYC
Jamel Burgess, far left, stands with other youth advocates.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Jamel Burgess wasn’t sure why some people went to college and others never seemed to make it.

Now, he’s well aware of the barriers that keep students from higher education, from the big — family strife — to the relatively small, like CUNY’s application fee.

That knowledge has been hard won. Burgess, 25, has spent 10 years working with students hoping to get into and succeed in college, a process that started at the Franklin K. Lane campus when he was a student there getting its Student Success Center off the ground.

That center trains students to help peers through the college admissions process by means of workshops and one-on-one help sessions. The centers now operate in 40 city schools.

Chalkbeat spoke with Burgess, an organizer with the program Future of Tomorrow, just moments before he took the stage as a guest of honor at the 10-year anniversary celebration of College Access: Research & Action’s “Right to College” program. CARA has been involved with the student success center project since its inception in 2007.

In an interview, Burgess explained how he first got involved with youth advocacy and spoke of his own unexpected path to the New School, where he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree, as well as his passions for music, activism, and pizza.

Describe how you first got involved with youth organizing.
I grew up attending the Cypress Hills Collegiate Prep High School. At the time, Future of Tomorrow was recruiting students to come to meetings and basically just saying they had a safe space with food where students could come and learn how to be active in their school community. What really got my attention was the free food part. I dropped into a few meetings and it turned out to be pretty cool.

What motivated you to keep attending the meetings?
The organizer was running political education workshops and talking about things that were taking place in the city and how it impacts us as students and our schools. I found that interesting because in school we didn’t really get to talk about the bigger picture of things. We were always focused on testing, testing, testing and things in a textbook, but this was a different type of education and I really learned a lot. And the pizza was good. So I stuck around.

Something I can remember clearly was looking at how school policy and discipline codes are written, and how youth voices weren’t at the decision table. Young people are impacted by a lot of our discipline code, such as the policy to not have phones in school, the policy to have metal detectors in schools, cops in schools, Regents testing and things like that.

What were the first campaigns you got involved with?
When I started with Future of Tomorrow, the students were already working on the Student Success Center campaign. I sat on a hiring committee with a few other students to interview counselors and identify who we wanted to work at the centers. And we also worked closely with the Urban Youth Collaborative, which is made up of other youth organizations, on a city-wide level. The first centers were then open at Bushwick Campus in 2007 and at the [Franklin K.] Lane Campus in 2008.

Did the program directly impact you?
Yes, I was a youth organizer my senior year and had my own youth leader. She basically talked to me during lunch and at times I would slack off because, honestly, that’s what kids do, kids are kids. She would track me down and make sure I was on top of my stuff and I met with her during lunch or after school.

I remember her forcing me to make sure I checked my email to see if colleges are replying and emailing me back. She was really supportive in my transition to college and I’m really glad I had her. I went on to Queensborough Community College where I studied music production.

I have three brothers and only one of them actually made it to college, my younger brother. A year or two years after he graduated high school, I kept having conversations with him about getting into college and then finally he enrolled into Queensborough Community College. That’s also an important thing to highlight: He got to college a little later but still made it.

We come from the same background, the same circumstances, so I often think what could have happened if he had had a youth leader or student success center.

And why music production? Is that another one of your passions?
I remember telling my youth leader and my college counselor that the only thing I would ever want to study in school was music. I wasn’t really an A student. School didn’t really move me, but music did.

My school definitely did not have music programs. A lot of my music that I got to experiment as a young person was in my mother’s church, but there were a few opportunities in high school, like talent shows, where I got to showcase my music. Everyone knew me as the music guy. I wrote lyrics, I wrote songs, and produced beats.

And I am not back burnering my music now. I’m studying at the New School where I’m basically trying to combine my passions. I’m self-designing a major around art and activism, looking at the ways we can use music and art to create social change in communities.

Where do you see youth advocacy in your future?
I think I definitely eventually want to run my own nonprofit. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I can keep dreaming it. But I definitely want that. Supporting my community with a strong focus on youth leadership and the arts and advocacy as well. And to continue making great music.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.