The year has been a year fraught with political turmoil for much of the United States, with major changes on the horizon for many families and communities across the country. What better place to uncover and tell those stories than the epicenter of American policymaking? This year’s Reporting the Nation/Reporting New York students trekked to our nation’s capital to do it. Join us in our Washington, D.C., journeys as we confront the issues facing America’s most vulnerable communities, from sex trafficking to healthcare to the opioid crisis. Read our stories here.
By Mireia Triguero
Public support for the education policy known as the Common Core standards has been free falling in New York State since Governor Andrew Cuomo implemented it in 2012. For Cuomo, it has become an issue in the upcoming elections.
Cuomo, a Democrat, leads his Republican opponent by 21 points, according to the latest Siena poll. But the question is what mandate he will have after the election, said Lawrence Mead, New York University professor and expert on American politics.
Teacher unions, which hold a lot of power in the Democratic Party, now oppose the Common Core. New York State United Teachers withdrew their support at the beginning of the year and asked for “major course corrections to its failed implementation plan,” in an official statement. Depending on the electoral results, Cuomo could face pressure to act on the Common Core issue.
The opposition against the education standards, a set of academic goals from kindergarten through high school, began on the Republican side but has moved to be an issue in both major parties. According to Mead, Republicans think the federal government is overstepping and prescribing what teachers should teach. Democrats feel that the policy was developed through an undemocratic process that benefits big corporations and that it has been poorly implemented, with little preparation for the teachers or students, he added.
Common Core has become a buzzword over the past month. In 2013, 62 percent of people polled nationwide had never heard about it; in 2014, 80 percent of those polled said they had heard about it, and 47 percent indicated they had heard a great deal or a fair amount, according to a PDK/Gallup poll. Opposition has increased hand in hand with awareness: five out of 10 New York State residents answered that the implementation should be stopped in New York, according to the latest Siena Poll.
Cuomo has been challenged about it multiple times during the campaign. In the Democratic Party primaries, Zephyr Teachout, professor at Fordham University, campaigned against Common Core implementation. Cuomo won the primary but still faces opposition on the Common Core, this time from his Republican opponent, Rob Astorino, who has launched a “Stop Common Core” effort to rally voters against the cause.
After many months of not taking any clear stance on the matter, the Cuomo campaign released an ad on Monday pledging to “stop using Common Core scores for at least five years, and then only if our children are ready.” The campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The implementation of the standards
Katie Lapham, a first grade teacher at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, says she understands the benefits of standards as a framework that gives teachers “freedom to teach and students … freedom to learn,” but she strongly opposes the Common Core standards as they are.
“Our schools need smaller class sizes, common sense curriculum, teacher-created curriculum and teacher-created authentic performance based assessments, project based, meaningful, inspiring work,” she said, adding that New York State has created fixed curricula, instead of only giving a general set of goals.
Lapham, member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus within New York State United Teachers, worries that the curricula do not help her students, adding that the ReadyGEN ELA English Language Arts program is “dull and uninspiring.”
“The vocab is not appropriate for the lower grades,” Lapham said. “Spending five to seven days closely reading a picture book is boring; an ineffective way to promote literacy.” She has many English-language learners in her class and is worried that taking a test that reflects negatively on their learning will impact their confidence and increase the number of dropouts.
Garth Wolkoff, a teacher at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, said that a set of standards that helps the students “be more analytical thinkers rather than to memorize … can’t be bad.” He likes the idea of teachers teaching less subject matter, but more in depth, giving students more analytical skills, but he finds the standards oppressive at the elementary school level.
The standards are “asking very young students like Lucy to read and do more math,” Wolkoff said, referring to his 6-year-old daughter. “Playtime has been taken out of kindergarten, for example, and she is learning ‘Common Core’ math.”
Parents and teachers are uniting to fight the Common Core tests. In April 2014, some teachers opted out of the test and many parents pulled their kids out of school the day of the test. Although there are no exact statistics yet, there were some 1,000 students who refused to take the math test in New York City, according to City Councilman Daniel Dromm. The Journal News reported that more than 3,000 students in the Lower Hudson Valley opted out, a fourfold increase compared with the previous year, according to the newspaper.
The MORE caucus within the teachers union is one of the most outspoken critics of the Common Core. The testing was “produced not by teachers, but by corporations,” MORE’s official statement reads. The movement argues that the standards “were written without meaningful teacher input, and educators do not have the freedom to use them as they see fit.”
Teachers and parents fear that the standards are too focused on “college and career readiness” to the detriment of “civic-mindedness, student health, and social and emotional growth,” according to the MORE statement.
Lapham said that, because of the emphasis on the tests, students “are not getting what they need both academically and emotionally.”
“If Cuomo is re-elected, expect more of the same,” Lapham added. “However, parents and teachers will continue to speak out. (The) grassroots movement is growing. Expect more and more opt-outs in the spring.”
Education standards are unlikely to be a decisive factor in the elections, but the Common Core will continue to be an issue in the political arena.
A new bill passed this month by the New York State Assembly will require the Department of Education to consider closing schools if a holiday is likely to result in numerous students being absent from school.
The passage of the bill comes after a push by some New York City legislators to close city public schools for the start of the Chinese New Year. Asians make up over 10 percent of the student population in the NYC school system and schools in Chinatown typically have very low attendance rates on the first day of the Chinese celebration.
“We should consider other cultures’ celebration of the New Year,” said Suiling Tsang, a parent at PS 124, whose child didn’t attend school on the start of the New Year.
“I think the typical example is the Jewish New Year. We celebrate the Jewish New Year so why can’t other cultures?”
Mayor Bill De Blasio recently said he supports creating a holiday for the Chinese and Lunar New Year. De Blasio also campaigned on creating school holidays for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, which are two Muslim celebrations.
“It will take time. It’s complicated in terms of logistics and school calendar and budget. It’s something I want to get done in a reasonable time frame,” said De Blasio in a recent interview on WNYC.
Adding three holidays to the school calendar could pose a problem for the school system. Schools are required to be in session for 180 days and the city currently only offers 181 instructional days. The school system does offer a 183 days calendar for high schools.
by Nidhi Prakash
It’s not quite an art gallery, not quite a language school, and not quite a music venue.
But El Taller Latino-Americano is a little bit of all those things, and most of all it has become a cultural institution on the Upper West Side over the last two decades. With rising rents, it’s about to be driven out of the area.
“Despite the fact that we are a not-for-profit educational organization, the rent which we engage in with the landlord is commercial,” said Bernardo Palombo, a founder of El Taller.
It’s expected to rise from $8000to $22,000 per month next year.
“What for us is human space is for others mathematics and numbers,” said Palombo.
This is not the first time Manhattan’s property market has forced them to move.
They started out on 19th Street and 7th Avenue almost 35 years ago, before moving a little further uptown, then across to the basement of a Russian cathedral in the Lower East Side. They’ve been in their current space on 104th Street and Broadway for the last 22 years.
“Now we are here, and probably next year we will be in Canada, because the whole history of gentrification pushes people to el norte, so we are going to el norte again,” said Palombo.
He has a plan for El Taller – to develop an urban garden, community kitchen, centre for immigrants’ rights and a three-penny university – if he can find a way to stay in the building.
The three-penny university would include workshops from current and former Columbia University professors and community members.
“Dona Maria, a Puerto Rican woman who lives next to my house, will teach handy 22 point crochet,” said Palombo, “And the younger characters that are selling drugs in the avenue will teach texting to the old farts like me.”
El Taller has submitted the proposal to two different arts foundations, suggesting they buy the building and help expand the organization.
But if the rent rises as expected, it is likely Palombo and El Taller will have to find a new home for these big ideas to unfold.
Emanuel Rivera, 5, opened up a duffel bag filled with school and art supplies and toys. Ecstatic about his newly prized possessions, which included markers, pencils, stickers, and a Thomas the Tank kazoo, Rivera of the South Bronx, was starting school for the first time.
“I get to take these home,” said Rivera while trying on a red beanie.
Kindergartners like Rivera at the Mott Haven Charter School Academy received items donated by the My Stuff Bags Foundation and the Toy Industry Foundation as an event for students starting school for the first time.
Founded in 2008, the Mott Haven Charter School Academy in the South Bronx serves approximately 255 students from kindergarten through fifth grade currently in the foster care and child welfare system. The school maintains a partnership with the New York Foundling, one of New York’s oldest and largest child welfare service agencies.
“We have some students and some families that struggle,” said Jessica Nauiokas, the school’s principal and founder. “The purpose of this school is to make sure that even if there is some chaos or struggles at home that academics don’t get ignored.”
According to Nauiokas, students are enrolled at the school through a lottery system, which enables the school to give priority to students in the child welfare system. Two-thirds of the students are in the child welfare or foster care system, while the rest come from the South Bronx community.
The school also emphasizes parent participation, offering evening workshops for parents covering anything from parenting classes and how to get involved to English language improvement and literacy building, according to the school website.
Marisa Medina, the Foundation Manager for the Toy Industry Foundation, said that the foundation does not typically host on-site events, and rather ships out items like toiletries, school supplies and clothing to care agencies throughout the city.
“It’s a special occasion,” said Medina. “For these kindergartners, it’s their first time in school. We want to make sure that they start it on a fun note and that they have what they need to get their school career going.”
This is the fourth year the My Stuff Bags Foundation–which provides the duffel bags filled with items the students need–and the Toy Industry Foundation have sponsored the event.
Alan Shatz has been the Director of Community Relations and Volunteer Services at New York Foundling for 13 years, and does not see the back-to-school kindergartner event going away anytime soon.
“It’s a wonderful way to engage and welcome our new kindergartners, and especially to hopefully engage the families,” said Shatz. “The kids go home and they show their parents and say, ‘Look what I got at school.’ Success at school has a lot to do with the home life.”
And next month, the kindergartners will receive another surprise: winter clothes.
“If we have a winter like last year, they won’t need any of it,” Shatz said.
Eva Reed dropped out of high school when she was in ninth grade. She was unmotivated, with teachers who seemed to not care about her success. Her sister had just been killed and her mother needed help raising her seven children. Nearly 30 years later Reed, 42, is attending Mercy Education Project’s Pace program taking classes to improve her reading and math skills.
“I never got a chance,” Reed said of her high school experience. “I was always trying to get help to the point where I was crying but I never got the help I needed.”
Mercy Education Project has been operating in Southwest Detroit for 19 years. They provide a variety of GED preparation classes to women and most students arrive reading at a fifth grade level or below. Reed knew something was wrong when her seven children started surpassing her educationally.
“It was my third oldest daughter, when she was in school and I couldn’t help her with her homework, that’s when I realized I needed help,” she said.
Reed is like 47 percent of Detroiters, who are considered functionally illiterate. While there are several organizations around the city working to bring this number down, the city is still in such financial straits that the education system has been deteriorating for several years. It was recently announced that the city has to close six branches of the Detroit Public Library.
Amy Amador, the executive director at Mercy Education Project, says the deterioration of the education system in Detroit is partially to blame for such a high illiteracy rate.
“Our schools have been in turmoil for years,” she said. “We have had a history of once kids get to high school, we’re just waiting for the ones who are going to drop out and focusing on the ones who stay in. There are a lot of efforts to make changes, but we aren’t there yet.”
Detroit had the their highest graduation rate since 2007 last year with 62 percent of high school students graduating within four years. But, that still leaves 38 percent of young Detroiters without the basic skills they need to find work. The system has faced large deficits and announced a budget cut of $230 million this summer.
Detroit Public Schools is not the only local department facing serious cuts. With the library being forced to close six of its 23 branches at the end of the month, residents have risen up to try and save them. They are writing letters to the Library Commission and picketing outside their local branches.
G. Peggy Noble, the Fenmore Block Club president responsible for protesting outside the city’s main library to save the Chase Branch, said she and her community understood the cultural and educational importance of keeping libraries open for the children.
“We really didn’t want the library to close, but then when you look into the eyes of the children here, we knew had to do something,” Noble said.
Donald Bailey III, 13, said he and his friends come to Chase everyday to do their homework in a quiet and peaceful environment and stay safe after school.
“If [the library] wasn’t here we would probably just be out on the street robbing and doing crimes and stuff like that, that we shouldn’t,” he said. “But while we’re here this is stopping us from doing that.”
At the Chandler Park Branch, another on the brink of closure, Barbara Thomas holds meetings for her non-profit organization Believe in Detroit Just for Girls, a math and literacy enrichment program for girls ages five through ten. Thomas volunteers at a nearby school and brings the girls in her program to the library for three hours every Saturday to read and check out books.
“I was startled,” Thomas said of the closures. “The first thing I thought was what am I going to do with my girls.”
Illiteracy can be passed on from one generation to the next and certainly the threat of losing libraries hasn’t gone unnoticed as a serious issue by literacy advocates in the city.
“It’s unfortunate when libraries close because that’s quality of life,” Margaret Thorpe Williamson, the executive director of Pro-Literacy Detroit said. “They are repositories of information so it’s important for young people and all people to have access.”
While the Detroit Public Library declined comment, Detroit City Councilman James Tate said that the city has struggled to make headway on the illiteracy issue, one that he championed while campaigning in 2009, and that hearing about libraries closing is painful.
“It’s important that we do what we can to support our educational institutes and our cultural institutes and that includes our libraries,” Tate said.
Tate said the challenge Detroit is facing is changing the collective mentality on education. He said that because the city relied so heavily on the auto industry that kept them comfortable for decades Detroiters never put a heavy emphasis on higher education.
“The problem that we’ve had over time is that many of our families didn’t really emphasize higher education and that unfortunately led to not valuing education as a whole,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to fight.”
Susie Schechter is the executive director of Reading Works, a new collaborative between several literacy organizations including Mercy Education Project that is going to be used as an awareness and fundraising platform. She said the blame cannot be placed on Detroit’s current education system alone. Historically, Detroiters did not necessarily need basic educational skills to get by.
“People could come to Detroit and work on the line and make a great living and you could get away without having high literacy skills,” she said. “The auto industry is always going to be a huge part of who we are. But if we want to move into the direction we are poised to move into we need to have a workforce that has a higher skill set.”
Moving the city into a new direction is why Reading Works brought together nine of the longest running and successful literacy organizations in the city together. Their main objective is to bring everyone together to talk about challenges and brainstorm ways around them.
“Certainly, we’re facing up to the problem,” Schechter said. “We’re not denying that it exists anymore. We’re trying to handle the crisis.”
For people like Reed, the Mercy Education Project student, gaining the courage to admit she needed help and finally getting it has been a liberating experience. When she first came to Mercy in 2009, she read at a fourth grade level, now she has passed three out of five parts of her Graduation Equivalency Diploma exam.
Reed knows other people with similar reading and educational struggles as herself and encourages them to let go of their pride and look at her as an example.
“I never thought I would be where I’m at today,” Reed said. “I always looked down on myself and I never thought I could do anything, but once I got here and just the love, the peace, the people here, it’s a blessing.”
New York City schools are in the thick of the high school application process this month—but a new online approach to the admissions process might make their workload a little lighter.
The common online application, an admissions system preferred by most universities and colleges for nearly a decade, was used by nearly 3,000 charter school applicants for the first time this year.
The New York City Charter Center, a non-profit organization helping charter schools with advocacy and management, implemented the new system at select schools to get parents and teachers through the stressful and time-consuming application process.
“We’ve had very positive feedback from the schools,” said Sulafa Bashir, Program Manager for School Operations at the New York City Charter Center. “It was interesting because a number of the schools already had their own online application but they were still interested in using this as a channel to get additional applicants and they did receive a lot of additional applications as a result.”
Development of the new system began in December, after the Charter Center offered a pilot application to the first 20 schools that expressed interest.
There are currently 125 charter schools citywide, with another 17 scheduled to open this fall. According to Bashir, 40 schools responded to the Charter Center advertisement within two days.
After an initial round of feedback, the application—which asks for basic information such as a student’s name, address, gender and the academic year they are applying for—was displayed on the schools’ websites.
“It’s a lot like the common application for colleges,” said Bashir. “It’s the same concept except there are no recommendations or essays. It’s much easier.”
In addition to online application submission, many schools retained a printable version that parents could fill out and mail, fax or deliver by hand.
A key part of the application requires that parents note whether an applicant has siblings at the school and what Community School District (CSD) the family lives in—factors that could give their child an inside edge.
The citywide due date for applications was April 1 with lotteries scheduled to take place from April 2 to April 16.
Dan Rubenstein, executive director of Brooklyn Prospect Middle School, a charter school in CSD 15 that places special emphasis on technology, said the online common application has made the admissions process less stressful for both applicants and schools.
“The reason we decided to use the common application was to make it easier for parents to apply to the school,” he said. “It’s also easier to manage a single application as opposed to running around collecting a bunch of different papers; it’s much less work for us.”
Rubenstein said Brooklyn Prospect, which has 220 students in grades six through eight, received 680 applications this year and accepted about 100 new students –an increase he attributes to the common online system.
But he added that although the school is looking to expand, they do not really feel the need to attract a larger applicant pool.
“We have so many more applications than we have spaces available,” he said. “I think there may be other schools that are under-enrolled and I think maybe for them it would be a bigger deal.”
Bashir said a goal of the new online common application is to increase access to charter schools, make parents aware of the educational opportunities they offer, and encourage people to apply.
“The charter landscape has changed over time and it has definitely become more competitive between schools,” said Bashir. “In areas where it has become more saturated; where there are multiple schools in the same area, those schools have definitely seen a decline in their wait lists.”
The Charter Center plans to provide the application in languages other than English and Spanish, which are currently the only options.
“Parents who aren’t comfortable with English have a hard time applying to charter schools because they may not necessarily be able to fill out the application,” Bashir said. “One of the great things about having a common application is once we translate it to multiple languages we can make it much easier for these parents to apply.”
The Paul Robeson High School girl’s track team placed sixth in the city championships this season and sent two girls to states.
But after New York City’s Panel on Education Policy voted to phase-out Paul Robeson, blocking new student enrollment at the school last month, the track team’s chance for future success might be cut short.
The phase-out will apply to 23 other city schools this fall—and slashing resources, allocated based on student enrollment, could threaten sports teams and other afterschool activities.
According to the Department of Education educational impact statement on the proposed phase-out, “Robeson would continue offering student athletics and other extracurricular programs options, but the number and range of programs offered may gradually diminish due to declining student enrollment as the school phases out.”
Horace Sutherland, a track coach at Paul Robeson for 21 years, said that without incoming freshmen, the team has little room for growth.
“If you are not able to recruit any freshmen, the team starts to fall apart without the numbers to support it,” he said.
The decision to close Paul Robeson was first introduced by the Panel in 2009; but because of a lawsuit brought forth by the NAACP and the teacher’s union, the school has remained open.
Still, there are only 30 students in Paul Robeson’s upcoming freshmen class, which is much smaller than this year’s graduating class of about 100 students.
The Public School Athletic Association rules dictate that a team must have at least 12 people on the roster to participate in competition. There are 13 girls on the Paul Robeson track team this year but six of them are seniors.
Of those six, five have been recruited by colleges and three were offered scholarships.
“I cannot recall a student who joined the team and who did not go on to college,” said Sutherland. “We have had a lot of students; hundreds of them have gotten track scholarships.”
With the future of sports teams compromised, many students at phase-out high schools feel they are losing a valuable resource.
Yet former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said the phase-out process is the best alternative to keeping a failing school open.
“There are kids there in the middle of an education and to try to relocate them is an enormous challenge,” he said. “Second of all, its very hard to start a new, effective school. Its hard to build a new and different culture.”
One possible solution is combining phase-out school teams with teams at new schools. Right now, there are two schools –The Academy of Health Sciences and a new specialized school called Pathways in Technology—looking to move into the Paul Robeson building.
While a co-location could keep Paul Robeson’s track team alive, it can only do so much for school spirit.
“It’s going to be pretty tough if [Paul Robeson] phases out because I would like to see my graduating class and what they’re up to and have a reunion with them,” said Shernika Paul, 17, a senior at the school and track team member. “I guess that wont be happening. I would also like to come back and share my stories with future students at Paul Robeson but that’s not going to be happening.”
Three young brothers, wrestled with each other, struggling for possession of a basketball. Two girls giggled and screamed as they ran down the hall, trying to avoid the fray. Other teens stepped out of the elevator, laden with winter coats and backpacks as young adults steered them toward the gymnasium.
Such unrestrained chaos is not usually considered an ideal work environment. But at a Mormon church on the corner of 128th Street and Lenox Avenue, one tutoring program has found a way to capitalize on the mayhem.
Hotdogs and Homework, a tutoring program that meets once a week at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Harlem, offers teens a homework-friendly environment where they can work on school projects with young adults who act as both tutors and mentors.
Jessica Allred, 30, a middle school ESL teacher, founded the program in 2002, hoping to help teens with academics and give them positive role models.
“It all started with a Christmas gift drive,” Allred said, referring to her church’s efforts in 2002 to collect donations for schoolchildren in the neighborhood. “There was a moment when I looked at the volunteers wrapping gifts and I said to myself, this isn’t what these kids need. These kids need help with homework and they need positive adult role models who can spend time with them and express interest in their lives.”
Allred coined the phrase “Hotdogs and Homework” to summarize two teenage necessities, adding that she wanted to give them at least one meal a week—and hotdogs were just simple and easy.
“A lot of these kids don’t eat,” Allred said. “They have parents that work all day and kids have to fend for themselves.”
After she moved to Texas, Allred handed the program over to Kristin Robinson, 29, a Hot Dogs and Homework tutor since 2008.
“Every week it’s a hot mess,” said Robinson as she peeled a child off her mid-hug and gently pushed them towards a chair. “I’ve worked with the same girl for two years and we helped her graduate from high school. She had a lot of family drama and she was really worried about [graduating]. There were weeks where it was a little touch and go, but we got her staying after school and then involved in a summer school program and she finally graduated last September. Those experiences are really gratifying.”
According to the 2009-2010 New York City Department of Education progress report, the student graduation rate at some Harlem high schools such as Frederick Douglass Academy is about 41 percent—more than 30 percent below the city average. Although other area schools such as Thurgood Marshall Academy and Mott Hall High School rank much higher, they still fall under the 77 percent city average.
Yet Allred said it’s not only the graduation stats that are against Harlem students.
“Some of these kids that we tutor have parents who were having them at 14, 15, and 16.” Allred said. “These are kids raising kids and they don’t have the skills to be able to teach their children discipline.”
Hotdogs and Homework focuses on preparing teen students for the college workload. But there are a few exceptions, Allred said, including Eric Schubert,8, whose two older brothers attend the program and whose mother felt he needed one-on-one attention.
“She just wanted someone to read with him every week,” said Elle Ponder, 28, Schubert’s tutor for the past two years, adding that he struggled with English since both parents are non-native speakers. “He wasn’t picking up reading skills like his other classmates. But with the extra help every week, those in the program have seen Eric’s improvement.”
Schubert and Ponder’s relationship now extends beyond the student-tutor relationship. Schubert made her a keychain for Christmas and considered her to be a good friend.
It’s these relationships, said tutor Loren Thomas, 28, that keep her coming back week after week.
“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity Hotdogs and Homework has provided to get involved with my community and to have something in my week that is outside the realm of my daily routine,” he said. “When you see a student who’s been struggling make incremental improvements because of the time and efforts you’ve made, there’s really no better feeling.”