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.”

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this? What are common mistakes to avoid?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.

award-winning

Top principal’s ambitious goal: 100 percent at grade level — and her school is close

PHOTO: Aisha Thomas
Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, won a national school leadership award.

In late September, Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, got a phone call from a student’s mother. The woman said her daughter had been telling everyone that she wanted to grow up to be a principal just like Thomas.

It was particularly heart-warming because the girl was multiethnic, just like Thomas.

“I have arrived,” Thomas recalled thinking at the time.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. In early October, Zach Elementary was one of five Colorado schools recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, and on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Thomas had won a prestigious leadership award.

Thomas is among 11 principals nationwide — all leaders of Blue Ribbon schools — selected for the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.

“I’m floored,” she said. “I just come to work and I do what I do, and I love kids and I love people.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Thomas, who’s in her sixth year at Zach and her 17th in the Poudre School District, steers the school using five-year plans, frequent classroom coaching visits, and an emphasis on teacher collaboration.

It’s critical to know “where you want to take your school and your staff,” Thomas said. And then to be patient.

“It does take five years of churning through the day-to-day and showing up for people,” she said. “It takes time.”

The school’s latest five-year plan includes a goal that 100 percent of students will meet grade-level academic and behavior expectations. The school, situated on the southeast side of Fort Collins, uses a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge sequence.

Close to 90 percent of Zach students already meet academic standards, Thomas said, but it’s not enough. Even if there’s only one child missing the mark, what if that one kid is yours, she asked.

Thomas said school leaders have always tracked serious behavior problems, but this year will begin monitoring smaller classroom disruptions and distractions that affect student learning. The school also recently hired a coordinator who runs student groups on social-emotional learning and coaches teachers on managing student behavior.

Before she came to Zach, Thomas was a middle school counselor and assistant principal in the district. Since then, she’s discovered she loves the elementary age group.

“I love how creative the kids are and they’re just sponges for new information,” she said. “They don’t take themselves too seriously and they’ll tell you if you’re having a bad hair day.”