Student Voices

‘We weren’t surprised’: Students react with a weary shrug to city’s plans to close Bronx school where boy was fatally stabbed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some students at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx heard the news from a superintendent, who went from classroom to classroom informing them that their school would be closed after this school year. Others learned secondhand from friends, or from letters they were told to bring home.

But if it came as a surprise that their school — which serves fewer than 500 students in grades 6 to 12 — was among 14 troubled schools that the New York City education department announced Monday it intends to shutter, the decision nonetheless made sense to many students: One of their peers had fatally stabbed one boy and seriously wounded another during history class this September. The violence shocked the city and school community, yet it did not seem totally out of place at a school where student clashes were commonplace and instability was the order of the day.

“People were happy that the school is closing because the school is not really a great school,” said Sarah Vega, a 12th-grader, during an interview Monday with four schoolmates that was arranged by the group, Teens Take Charge. “We weren’t surprised,” added Chloe Oliveras.

The school has been on the decline in recent years. Its state test scores have sunk further and further below the citywide average, with just 12 percent of students passing the English tests and 5 percent passing math last school year. (The high school’s 75 percent four-year graduation rate is on par with the city average, and 8 points above the Bronx rate.)

At the same time, it has churned through several leaders and, since last academic year, lost over 100 students — including about 45 who received department permission to transfer in the wake of the stabbing. In addition, just five students listed the school as their first choice when applying to high schools for next year.

In an email to reporters Monday, the education department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, listed steps the department had taken to stabilize the school, like boosting staff training, installing a new principal, and dispatching officials, including schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to visit.

“Despite these additional interventions, there continues to be instability for students and staff,” Holness wrote, “and the Chancellor has determined that Wildlife students will be better served at another school.”

The school has been open since 2007, but students said a feeling of disorder began to take hold under Astrid Jacobo, who was principal from December 2015 until she was removed in October. In a survey last academic year, just 36 percent of teachers said they considered the principal an effective manager. (Jacobo did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Meanwhile, only 55 percent of students said they felt safe in the school’s hallways and cafeteria, and just 22 percent said most students treat each other with respect. On Monday, students said fights were common, as were requests for “safety transfers” to other schools.

“It was like no discipline whatsoever,” Chloe said. Added Sarah: “I don’t feel safe in that school.”

Wildlife Conservation had started to implement “restorative justice” practices, which push students to reflect on their misbehavior and try to repair any harm they’ve caused. Part of that effort involved a “justice panel” of students who would interview their classmates about their actions, try to figure out what caused them, and come up with “sanctions,” which might include a written reflection or an apology letter to a teacher.

“Some kids take it seriously, some kids don’t,” said Sarah, who is on the panel. “Usually they don’t listen to us because obviously they’re not going to listen to someone who’s so close to their age.”

On Monday, Sarah added, the panel heard from a girl who had flown into a rage after a classmate flung a piece of paper at her; during her outburst, she threatened to throw a chair at her teacher.

The incident she described was eerily reminiscent of the one on Sept. 27, when 18-year-old Abel Cedeno reportedly snapped during history class after being pelted with bits of paper and pencils, before stabbing 15-year-old Matthew McCree to death and seriously wounding Ariane Laboy, 16. Cedeno, who has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges, later said that other students had taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs.

After the attack, the city sent in grief counselors and beefed up security, which included adding metal detectors. But, the students said, things still didn’t feel right.

They had to walk past the classroom where their friend was killed — the “crime scene,” as Chloe put it. Later, students objected when the administration wanted to reopen the room, so instead it was converted into an office, the students said. At one point, feeling unheard and out of sorts after the stabbing, some students held a silent sit-in in the hallway.

“Everyone was crying and throwing tantrums,” in the days after the stabbing, said Miarah Cabassa, also in 12th grade. “We all was hurt.”

In a statement, Frank Giaimo, the acting principal who replaced Jacobo, said he has focused on making sure all students and staff feel safe and welcomed at the school.

“Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent time getting to know the community and together, we will continue our work to provide students with high-quality instruction, support teachers and partner with families,” he said.

Separately, the education department has promised to work individually with students at the closing schools to ensure they are offered spots at higher-performing schools next year. (The normal high-school application period ended Dec. 1.)

Seniors who are preparing to graduate from the School for Wildlife Conservation will never get that second chance to attend a safe, orderly high school. But for some younger students like Jaidan Oliveras, a 9th-grader who learned of the city’s plans from his sister, Chloe, it felt like a reprieve.

“I was just happy because I’ll get to transfer because I don’t want to be at that school,” said Jaidan, who has attended the school since the 6th grade. “At first, I actually enjoyed it. But at the end, I started getting tired of it.”

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”