homework and activism

NYC high school students are planning to walk out of class Tuesday. This Bronx teen helped organize them

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Hebh Jamal

In between physics and history on Monday afternoon, Hebh Jamal, a senior at the Beacon School, was tapping out text messages and tweets to her fellow student organizers. She fielded questions about when and where the next protest would happen, doled out tips for organizing fellow classmates, and shared words of advice about the consequences students could face.

On Tuesday at noon, all that effort will pay off, she hopes, when students from across New York City walk out of their classes and stream into Foley Square in downtown Manhattan. Jamal said students from 10 different schools will join a protest against Donald Trump’s recent executive order suspending the country’s refugee program and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim nations.

More than just a protest, Jamal hopes the event will also be a show of solidarity and give teens a sense of empowerment to take on everything from Islamophobia to student debt.

“New York City has thousands of immigrant students, and families that have visas and green cards,” said Jamal, 17. “These issues collectively will affect the younger generation and we should be able to have a say in it.”

Jamal’s Facebook profile features a picture of her at a rally, with protest signs hoisted in the background. The Bronx teen describes herself with just a few words: “Muslim. Palestinian. American. Because I can be all three at once.” A heart emoji caps the description.

Jamal, who also advocates for school integration, is already something of a veteran organizer. She was also behind a student walkout in the first week after Trump was elected — as well as a rally that attracted people of all ages to Foley Square last week.

In a tweet, New York City Councilman Carlos Menchaca shared a picture of Hebh speaking at that rally. He called her performance “inspiring and fierce.”

“Keep making your voice heard,” he encouraged.

Tuesday’s event was put together through word of mouth and social media posts. Immediately after Trump signed the immigration order, which is now temporarily halted as it makes its way through the courts, Jamal got to work.

“I went to the mosque the next day, and the conversation at the mosque with my very close friends was: ‘If my family gets deported, who am I going to stay with? Am I next? Am I going to be able to go to college after this?’” she said. “It was scary to hear that from people who are my age.”

Within days, she called a meeting at school, created a Facebook event and sent an online invite to some friends — who shared it with their friends. Soon, more than 2,000 young people said they were interested in the walkout.

The response has kept Jamal busy. Most days, she leaves her home in the Bronx by 6:30 a.m., sometimes working on her class assignments on the train. After school, she heads to her job at a nonprofit that focuses on equity issues, where she helps write policy briefs and newsletters. She doesn’t usually return home until 7 p.m.

“It’s pretty hectic,” she admitted.

On Tuesday, she’ll be missing history and physics class when she walks off campus. She’s not sure what assignments her teachers will give, but she’s not too worried about a missed lecture. Jamal said that protest should involve some type of sacrifice.

“There are better things to worry about in life than grades,” she said.


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.