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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.