taking it to the streets

In class, Validus Prep students helm an anti-violence tradition

Students at Validus Preparatory Academy organized the school’s fifth annual March Against Violence as part of a senior-level class called “Art + Action.”

Few current students at Validus Preparatory Academy knew Martin Jackson and Nadairee Walters personally. But that didn’t stop them from honoring Jackson and Walters, members of Validus’s first class who were killed in 2008, with a march against violence last month.

“Even though you didn’t know Martin and Nadairee, everyone has lost someone to gun violence,” senior Destiny Daley said from the center of a wide circle of students, faculty, and staff who marched together to a park near the school.

Andrea Hines, who was the school’s social worker when Jackson and Waters died, said she helped organize the first march, along with the New York Police Department’s Office of Community Affairs, to honor the two students and help their classmates grapple with their murders. It became a tradition, Hines said, when students the following year told her, “Let’s keep this going.”

This year is the first since then that Hines is not working at the school. Daley said she e-mailed one of her teachers, Jamie Munkatchy, last summer to ask how she could make sure the tradition continued.

Mukatchy made planning the march, and an accompanying series of workshops, a main project this semester in “Art + Action,” a course for seniors about the role of art in social movements that focuses on global and local violence.

With support from Validus teachers and staff from BuildOn, a nonprofit focused on engaging students in their neighborhoods, students in Art + Action put wrote press releases, contacted local politicians, and got their peers to spread awareness about the day throughout the school. They also scheduled workshops by the Bronx Defenders, a legal aid nonprofit; the New Settlement Parent Action Committee; and peer mediators from the school, which has long bucked trends to favor restorative justice over more punitive discipline programs.

“Today was our day,” said Bintou Sankaveh, a senior in Art + Action. “We were the teachers.”

In a peer mediation session, pairs of students recounted conflicts and then repeated back to each other what they had heard. “How is paraphrasing helpful when you’re in a conflict?” asked peer mediator, Judith Nwkor.

Naomi, a 10th-grader, responded, “It makes you feel like somebody’s listening to you.”

In another workshop, Dinu Ahmed, a community organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, asked, “What would make peer mediation more appealing to people? What would make students in a school feel more comfortable intervening when they see something going on?”

Linda McFarland, a literacy specialist and dean at Validus, said her students “learn a lot from these wokrshops, especially the younger ones. We drill it into them often, they get the picture eventually and don’t resort to fights and violence.” She said the peer mediations she has supervised in her office are often more effective than mediations led by adults, because students “can relate to each other.”

Munkatchy said younger students learn not only from the content of the day, but from its structure as well. “It takes a lot to acculturate students to using their power, to wanting to be in charge, to wanting to lead,” she said. Freshmen see seniors running the show “and want to know, ‘What’s that about? How come they’re the ones leading and all these teachers are on the side?’”

The workshops and the march, Hines said, “bring to life for [students] the traits that the school values.” And they hit close to home. “If you ask who has been impacted by gun violence, you’ll see hands going up all over,” she said.

Hines returned for the march and joined students at the center of the circle, as did Jackson’s mother, who spoke about her son and thanked attendees for honoring him.

Students often “start [the march] in crazy high school mode,” said Jess Trane, Validus’s college counselor. “Then when they arrive and hear Ms. Jackson speak, it dawns on them how important this is.”

Sankaveh said the March Against Violence affects the community beyond the school. “When we do it, we’re also out there in the community, and people see that we support non-violence.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.