hear me out

When these New York City schools want creative solutions to their challenges, they turn to the experts: students

Lisandro Mayancela, a student at Brooklyn Law Tech and member of the Student Voice Collaborative, hosts visitors at his school.

On a recent January morning, students Galeel Cora and Jenitza Jack sat in a conference room at Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology — a school that’s a 30 minute bus ride from the one they attend.

They came seeking advice on how their school, Brooklyn Community Arts & Media, can provide more opportunities for students to explore the themes promised by its name. They had the seed of a solution — a proposed event called “Fresh Fridays,” which would showcase students’ talents in painting, rap, dance, and other creative endeavors — but they weren’t sure how to get it off the ground.

The administrator they met with, Law and Tech Assistant Principal Melanie Werner, had plenty of ideas.

Maybe the event should be styled after a “gallery walk,” with each different classrooms featuring a different art medium, she suggested. The students nodded in agreement. Go after grants to fund it, she added. Galeel jotted that down. Reach across social cliques to recruit students to both contribute art and show up to the event, Werner offered.

“Get some kids together and come up with a game plan,” she said. “But it has to be fun, or it’s going to lose steam.”

The students were gathering this advice through a program called the Student Voice Collaborative, which trains students to analyze issues at their schools and come up with solutions. One important way they do that is by visiting partner schools — an approach to school improvement that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has also championed through similar programs that promote cross-campus collaboration among adults.

Launched in 2010 and run out of the Brooklyn North Field Support Center, the collaborative aims to add student voices to the mix. Equal parts research project, internship, and civics lesson, the program now spans seven districts and includes about 10 schools each year.

“A lot of times students aren’t involved in these types of conversations,” said Lisandro Mayancela, a senior at Law Tech. “You’re coming up with decisions that will affect the kids the most, so why not give those students a chance to sit down [and] actually voice their opinions?”

Students at each participating school are paired with groups from a different school through surveys and a speed-dating-style event at the start of the year. Then the teams meet every other week to discuss issues at their respective schools and brainstorm solutions. Students are also matched with an “action team” of adults at their own school, who help the students zero in on challenges and then follow through on their school-improvement ideas.

“We try to develop structures that promote youth-adult partnership, so the action team is like the heart” of the program, said Ari Sussman, an official at the support center who launched the collaborative. “Students and adults put their priorities side by side.”

One of the program’s highlights comes about halfway through the year when students take turns visiting and hosting partner schools. For Galeel and Jenitza, that meant taking an early morning bus ride to Law Tech to look for lessons to bring back to their own school.

During their visit, they dropped in on an art class and had a long discussion over pizza with Law Tech’s Student Government representatives, who shared how how they’ve managed to make their school events a success — tips for Galeel and Jenitza to keep in mind as they try to build Fresh Fridays. One Law Tech student suggested recruiting freshman, who would be too green to remember past school events that may have been boring. Another said good music would draw people in — and so would a little positive peer pressure, like a direct invite for popular students who hold sway with the rest of the school.

“I know for a fact that if a popular student is going to a party, I’m going, too,” he said.

They also met with art teacher Maria Pascual, who noted the funding challenges that Brooklyn Community Arts & Media is likely to face if it tries to adhere more closely to its theme. To illustrate her point, she mentioned that students have a hard time drawing on her school’s outdated iPads. Some funding riddles, she said, require creative solutions.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students Jenitza Jack and Galeel Cora visit Maria Pascual’s art class at Brooklyn Law Tech.

“Everybody in your school has a phone,” she told the visiting students as she whipped out her own cell phone and dragged her finger across the screen. “Get your teacher to download a sketchbook, and they can draw on their phones… Start thinking about, ‘What can I do right now.’”

While the program can help students come up with policy ideas, it’s up to their school leaders to give their ideas due consideration and carry them out.

One school that has done that is the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, which was part of the Student Voice Collaborative last year.

After students in the program noticed that 9th-graders’ attendance and grades had taken a nosedive midyear, the principal hosted regular strategy meetings in his office where he and the students could brainstorm solutions. Once they decided to try pairing the freshmen with 11th-grade mentors, the team’s faculty advisor, English teacher Michelle Eisenberg, agreed to train the older students.

By the end of the school year, the 9th-graders’ academics and attendance had stabilized, Eisenberg said. The students’ mentoring idea seemed to have made a difference — but only because the administration took it seriously.

“It’s one thing to invite a group of students to sit down one time and hear what they have to say,” she said. “I think it’s another thing to have students sit down in the principal’s office once a week, being critical and being proactive.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.