Speaking Up

‘Smooth sailing’ or ‘left behind’: The student voices in a charged debate over NYC’s high school admissions

PHOTO: Julian Giordano/Teens Take Charge
Students at a Teens Take Charge forum with Nikole Hannah-Jones

At the same time Monday night that Manhattan parents were protesting proposed changes to how a few New York City high schools choose their students, teenagers in Brooklyn were giving voice to their frustrations with their educational experience, including the city’s entire approach to admissions.

Students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge shared their struggles to navigate a sometimes labyrinthine high school application process. They described arriving late and ill-prepared to an undertaking that favors middle-class students — and, in some cases, realizing that they were beneficiaries of the system’s shortcomings.

Their call for change went far beyond the adjustment that the Manhattan parents were protesting — to do away with the admissions exam for specialized high schools and instead admit the top students from all middle schools. The proposal is aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students at the sought-after high schools, and has generated debate, often bitter, since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his desire to change the process in June.

Most of the parents at the Manhattan meeting were white or Asian, while most of the Teens Take Charge students who spoke were black or Hispanic.

The contrast between the two events drew attention from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who has written about segregation and her own family’s school choice experiences and who joined the teens in a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Public Library.

“I wish these two groups could have been in the same room, so that the progressive parents arguing their already advantaged kids deserve exclusive access to the best public high schools in the city could look the children they would deny this same privilege to in the eyes,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.

We amplified the Manhattan parents’ voices on Monday. Now, here are selections from the speeches of the Teens Take Charge students. Their comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“It is always us … who are left behind” — Brianna Marquez, a junior at New Heights Academy Charter School in Manhattan

‘Are you sure? You know there are many students who have been studying for this test since last year and the summer.’ These were the words from my guidance counselor that rang in my head because like many students, I had some sort of hope that I could have a seat in a specialized high school.…

That’s what disappointed me the most: not being told the whole truth … Not being told that because of my economic status, I can’t have any sort of hope for a quality education. Not being told that many students who look like me — Latinx and black — barely get accepted to a specialized high school. That at Stuyvesant, my dream school, only 3 percent of students during that school year were Latinx, and only 1 percent were black.

It is always us  — Latinx and black students — who are left behind because either many of us aren’t encouraged or are limited because we are underestimated in the work we can do. So you’re telling me that countless nights of doing homework at 1 a.m. because I didn’t have a proper desk to work at during my middle school years isn’t hard work?

A few times a week for a couple of weeks, I would approach my eighth-grade algebra teacher to ask for help with the math section of the SHSAT because of the fear of being left behind or not being good enough to score high for this exam. Unfortunately, little did I know that I was already behind. This was math that I should have understood except I didn’t, because although I was one of the top students at my middle school, I didn’t have enough knowledge. I was never encouraged by an adult to strive to go somewhere such as Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. Instead, we were told to just transfer to a regular public high school.

I didn’t know what were the ‘good schools.’

“I often think about the friends I left behind” — Toby Paperno, a sophomore at Beacon High School in Manhattan

I’ll never forget opening my middle school acceptance letter. I had gotten into my fourth choice, while all my friends had gotten into my two top picks, the only two middle schools anyone in my white, middle-class neighborhood ever talked about.

There was a huge stigma attached to my middle school, due to it being the most diverse middle school in the district….My mother tried to switch me into one of my preferred schools. Because I had been given my IEP [an individual education program for students with special needs] on the last day of fifth grade, my grades weren’t an accurate reflection of my abilities….

At my new school, almost everyone was different from me. I didn’t know whom to make friends with. So, I did what was natural: I found my place with the eight kids in my grade with similar stories to mine.

In eighth grade, I had an amazing social studies teacher. He helped me appreciate the diversity in my middle school and get out of my comfort zone to make friends with kids throughout the whole grade.

Soon it was time to apply to high school. That spring, I stared with disbelief at my high school letter: I had gotten into Beacon, my top-choice school! Only two other kids in my school got into Beacon, even though many others had listed it as their top choice. How come we got in, and they didn’t? Then it dawned on me. We had someone to help us practice our interviews, parents who could help us with our portfolios and advocate for us.

My middle school had a high school that was filled with kids who didn’t get into schools like Beacon. It had even fewer resources than the middle school. The kids like me that went on to different high schools needed less support than the rest of the kids in my grade….

Now, I go to a school that provides me with every activity I could want, several music studios where I can play the drums whenever, a beautiful library, and a PTA that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

I often think about the friends I left behind at my old school, the kids who needed more but got less.

“I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for” — Gerardo Hernandez, a senior at Bronx Leadership Academy II

My parents were not born in the United States and they never graduated from high school. They went through financial instability and tragedy throughout their lives, and the conditions they lived through pushed them to immigrate to the United States. Navigating the education system was foreign to them.

In eighth grade I heard someone talking about the SHSAT — the ticket to better schools, schools where kids had their own books, multiple classes to choose from — but I didn’t even know what the SHSAT stood for. No one at my school encouraged me to prepare for it.

I landed at an unscreened public school in the Bronx. When I walked through the doors, I believed it would be a challenge  —  what I’d read about the school sounded great — but in reality I entered a high school that was performing below standards, where just one in seven students enters the school performing on grade level. I knew there were better schools, but I couldn’t transfer. I was trapped. So I had to make the most of what I was given. We got out of school at 3:15 p.m. I guess they thought the extra time would help us catch up. But we didn’t learn much. I tried striving for better with little to no guidance.  

Fortunately, during my freshman year of high school, I had the luxury of applying to and ultimately being accepted into … a free college prep program for low-income students…. I felt challenged  — for once  — but I also learned how far I was behind. Thus began the difficult task of trying to catch up to high schoolers attending specialized, affluent, or properly developed high schools. I felt vulnerable, confused, and a loss of self-worth…. [The college prep program] cultivated an environment where I could have intellectual conversations, collaborations that signified pushing each other to reach beyond our limits and build trust.  

Now I’m a senior and I am close to … applying for [college]. I plan to pursue computer science as my major, and I hope to double major in Engineering. But I’m ultimately disappointed there have to be programs like SEO Scholars, Opportunity Network, Minds Matter, One Goal,  Bottomline, Prep for Prep and so many more programs that have to help kids like me  — kids the inadequate education system has left behind. Because the reality is: for every one of me, there are nine more still left behind.

“For me, it was smooth sailing” — Coco Rhum, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan

When I was in first grade, I was assigned the task of writing about what I wanted to be when I was older. I wrote: ‘I have a dream that one day girls can be president. Because girls are just as good as boys. I am going to study to be the first girl president’.… My single mother, a Ph.D., both told and showed me that I could be my own boss, that the world was mine for the taking. My zip code landed me in an elementary school with abundant books and arts and friendly faces welcoming me each morning. My first grade teacher fostered my curiosity and love for learning and helped me to see that I could dream big ….

This same privilege that made me dream big in the first grade has led me to opportunities and advantages; I have taken AP classes, have had multiple internships, have played sports and participated in clubs, and have my own desk in an art studio in school … While many of my peers have been unjustly left behind, I have not. When I was born, my mother moved to District 15 in part because of its schools. I attended a lovely and well resourced elementary school. It was over 75 percent white — five times the city average. In middle school, my privilege … continued as I attended a screened school in District 15. My middle school was similarly coveted, and similarly well-resourced. It was almost 60 percent white. And then came high school.

New York City’s high school application process is notoriously complex. But for me, it was smooth sailing. I knew the “good” schools to apply to …. I knew how to speak thoughtfully about myself for my Beacon interview, how to unscramble a paragraph for the SHSAT, and I knew how to pirouette for my LaGuardia audition. I worked hard, but I had already been on a path that meant that I was advantaged. The public high school that I now go to, which, when I applied, had screens for grades and test scores, a portfolio submission, and an interview portion, has an acceptance rate that is lower than Harvard’s and an annual Parent Association budget that is nearly half a million dollars. It is 50 percent white….

At each of the three schools I’ve attended, less than 30 percent of students have qualified for free or reduced price lunch — in a system where 75 percent of students qualify. All of my schools have been majority white in a system where just 15 percent of kids are white. The New York City public school system is segregated, and its resources flow to schools like mine.

“Even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry” — Lennox Thomas, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy

As a young child, I lived by Malcolm X’s philosophy that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” My grandmother learned that to be armed with education was to have a defense against systematic oppression. Her mother, born in the deeply segregated south, was denied a proper education. My grandmother did not want this life for her, nor future generations to come.

So every day during my third grade year in elementary school, my grandmother, with her high-cheekbones, thick box glasses, and sandy brown hair, made sure I completed all my school work along with extra assignments. She hoarded vocabulary flashcards, Scholastic News articles, math workbooks, science dictionaries, and any other resource that had been given to her by one of my teachers, all of whom she befriended. I was so well prepared during my elementary years, that I could not fathom how several of my classmates were at risk of being held back for not understanding the curriculum. This same feeling of academic shock visited me once more four years later when it was time to open my high school admissions letter.

Like every other student in my gifted and talented middle school, I hoped to be among the small percentage of students who would get accepted into one of the prestigious specialized high schools. I had spent the last four months cramming for a single test that would determine if I would enter a free academic heaven where opportunities were endless, funding was abundant, and the number of classes were in the hundreds  — or an academic abyss where there were finite resources, rushed curricula, and short staffing.

When I opened my admissions letter and saw that the words “no acceptance” next to every single specialized high school I applied for, my heart sank. I was slumped for a few weeks and started to think that I was somehow inferior to my peers that got accepted. At that time, I didn’t know that the kids that I was competing against were preparing years in advance….

Education is the passport to the future. But what wasn’t told to me and millions of others is that just like a passport, if you’ve got money, you can pay to get it quicker. If you’re of a certain ethnicity, religion, or gender, it may be denied to you completely. And even if you’ve managed to get a passport, you may still be denied entry to a country.

“Are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?” — Ayana Smith, a senior at University Heights High School in the Bronx

Perhaps the most infuriating argument I’ve heard is “black and Latinx students just don’t  work as hard as their white and Asian counterparts.”

My immediate reaction is always, ‘So, are you suggesting that I don’t work hard?’

Then, the person that I’m speaking to will usually retract their words to make an exception: “Well not you, Ayana. Your GPA is in the 90s, and your SAT score is a 1300.”

And, I mean, why wouldn’t they? In our education system, hard work is measured purely by results: numeric values that provide little insight on how hard a student truly worked. And, my stats fall above the national average for all races, so of course I must be more hardworking than my counterparts.

However, the truth is that I’m no more hardworking than the person sitting next to me because hard work is not always defined by being exceptional on paper. My peers do everything that they’re supposed to do: they attend office hours for tutoring, form study groups for the SAT, and spend more time than me studying outside of school.

But  no matter how much we study and prepare, we can only go as far as the limit allows us to … Unlike many of my classmates, I have received opportunities that they didn’t, opportunities designed to compensate for the faults within our education system. Because of this, I’m relied on by my peers to take on the role of a guidance counselor, instructor, and exam proctor.

I gave my old SAT prep books to my classmates who couldn’t afford them. I held mock Princeton Review SAT prep and tutored after school and during lunch. I sent emails outlining the essentials for the impending college application process, and I reviewed supplemental essays and personal statements. All because my school doesn’t have the resources to prepare students adequately for college entrance exams, and it doesn’t have staffing to accommodate the needs of all students: our guidance counselor serves 104 seniors, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college.

“I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough” — Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Millennium Brooklyn

“Parents in my school didn’t know about the achievement gap” — Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan

Sophie: I’m from the Brooklyn of brownstones, bagel shops, bike lanes, and grassy parks.

Tiffani: Parks in my neighborhood are dangerous after five o’clock. There is no studying in the grass under the shining light of the afternoon sun with textbooks that cost a dollar a page, a dollar a page that could be spent on funding teachers who know what they’re talking about. When it comes to school, people in my neighborhood think it’s all the same – you’ll get a decent education wherever you go.

Sophie: Go to P.S. 8. It’s one of the best schools in the city. That’s what my parents were told. That’s why so many parents decided to move to Brooklyn Heights. And it paid off. P.S. 8 had it all: parent-funded art classes, electives galore, advanced classes, etc. But still I heard parents complain that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more teachers with more degrees, smaller classes, bigger budgets, better resources.

Tiffani: Resources were always scarce. ‘I got my degree, I don’t need to be here,’ said the teachers who couldn’t understand our frustration, or whose frustrations overtook them, reminding us of that truth that they didn’t need to be there. So why were they?…

In my middle school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, we received our one minute of fame after being discovered by Humans of New York…. We were 99 percent black and Hispanic. We were constantly told that we were brilliant. That if we worked hard, we could do anything. That the possibilities were endless. That we were more than where we lived…. Cameras flashing, reporters asking, and money and donations and TED talks from our principal … but then … the cameras left.

Sophie: I have always been in a school with resources, a school with privilege. But many in our community complained that it still wasn’t enough: all they could see was what their child didn’t have….

Tiffani: Parents in my school did not know about the achievement gap. They did not have the knowledge nor the time to focus on what math books their children were getting, what their children’s drama teachers were doing — or if there were drama teachers. Instead, they had to focus on what they were going to feed their children, and what time they were going to take off of work to pick them up.

Youth suicide

Younger Colorado students seek access to mental health care, without parental permission

PHOTO: Sandra Fish / Chalkbeat
Democratic Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, in the foreground, right, and Dylan Roberts, left, present a bill aimed at curbing Colorado youth suicide to the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee on Feb. 20, 2019.

A bill before the Colorado legislature would allow younger children to access confidential therapy on their own to fight mental illness and youth suicide.

A stream of Colorado teens on Wednesday told stories of their mental health crises, suicide attempts, and the deaths of friends as the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee discussed House Bill 1120.

This is the third attempt by state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet to expand access to therapy for middle school-aged children. Previous efforts died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Now Democrats control both chambers, but that doesn’t mean there is consensus on the best way to intervene in what has become a public health crisis in Colorado.

Some questioned the wisdom of allowing 12- to 14-year-olds to seek help from licensed mental health or social workers without parental approval. Current law allows people 15 and over to seek therapy without such consent.

Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City  Democrat, said she’s considering adopting portions of a New York law that allows minors to get therapy without parental consent under certain circumstances. Already, she’s agreed to amend the bill to allow health providers to consult with a child’s parents if they think it’s warranted and wouldn’t harm the child.

She said she expects the committee to vote on the bill March 1, with additional amendments.

The bill also would have the Colorado Department of Education develop mental health and suicide prevention resources for schools around the state.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Steamboat Springs Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that his district has been particularly hard hit by Colorado’s youth suicide crisis.

“Eagle County had 18 completed suicides last year in a community of only about 50,000 people,” Roberts said.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2017 for those ages 10 to 21 in Colorado. Accidents ranked first, with 156 deaths; while 138 youths died by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number is up from 72 suicides for the age group in 2008.

“We are in the top in the nation, No. 3, for youth suicide,” Michaelson Jenet said. “What are we going to do about it?”

Susan Marine, who lost two children to suicide, said the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado agrees that youth suicide is a pressing issue that deserves action. But she suggested mental health workers should reach out to parents after a handful of confidential sessions with a child.

“All of our providers believe that it’s important to involve parents as soon as possible,” Marine said. “The parents may be totally unaware of their child’s struggle.”

Brad Miller, with the conservative group Colorado Family Action, went further, suggesting that allowing confidential counseling violates parents’ constitutional rights.

“Kids have limited cognitive ability to make these decisions,” he said.

His group, along with Colorado Christian University and Christian Home Educators of Colorado, opposes HB 1120.

But several young people said not all parents are supportive of their children.

Amy Rodriguez, now 16 and living in Thornton, said she came out to her mom at age 12. Her mother wasn’t supportive, and she couldn’t get counseling without permission until age 15.

“Your life’s more important than a relationship with your parents,” she said.

Riah Hollis, of Denver, talked of her brother’s struggles with gender identity and his suicide attempt. He didn’t want to talk to his parents because they didn’t support his gender transition.

“Sometimes kids don’t have a trusted adult at home. Sometimes a crisis involves parents,” she said.

Becky Zal-Sanchez, a social worker in Denver-area schools, said she’s often frustrated with the inability to provide services to young people without parental consent. “I reach out to parents over and over again, and nobody calls me back.”

Representatives from Mental Health Colorado, the National Association of Social Workers Colorado chapter, and Colorado Rural Health Center are among the supporters of the measure.

Michaelson Jenet is motivated in part by her own son’s mental health struggles. She noted that her son’s counselors reviewed his sessions with his parents, which set him back. “My son stopped trusting mental health providers, so he stopped telling them what was wrong.”

HB 1120 is among several bills aimed at dealing with mental, social, and health issues among young people. Michaelson Jenet is also sponsoring a measure to place social workers in 10 elementary schools around the state, a bill that prohibits conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors, and a bill to further subsidize school lunches for high school students.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.