Tag Archive | "Education"

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Bronx Community College Hosts Kids Comic Con Sci-Fest

The Kids Comic Con Sci-Fest welcomes Bronx families to learn more about comics, science and technology. Lindsey Choo for The Bronx Ink.

Dozens of families attended the annual Kids Comic Con event held at Bronx Community College Saturday—the first one held in-person since 2019. This year’s convention, named Sci-Fest, was focused on the relationship between comics, science and technology.

The event was co-founded and organized by comic book writer Alex Simmons and Bronx Community College Director of Collaborative Programs, Eugene Adams, as a way of introducing Bronx kids, particularly those in Black and Latino communities, to careers in science and technology through comic books.

“We want young people to see that—of course, Iron Man is cool—but we also want you to know the technology for Iron Man,” Adams said. “They are areas that … you can actually learn from. So we combined the idea of comic books with robotics, computer science, coding and media production.”

A number of volunteer vendors had comic book displays and sketches, as well as tabletop science experiments and demonstrations. Many displays featured main characters who were people of color.

“The goal is just to see more kids of color enter STEM based careers,” said Delanda Coleman, founder of the publishing company behind More than a Princess, Sydney and Coleman. “A lot of kids, especially minority kids, children who are poor or in rural areas, don’t get the right level of exposure to STEM based concepts… so we integrate science concepts into the story.”

The convention also featured a tribute to the late actress Nichelle Nichols, who starred in the Star Trek franchise and led efforts in the 1970s to diversify recruits in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, including the hiring of the first Black American astronaut and the first female American astronaut.

Alex Simmons, comic book writer, speaks during a tribute to actress Nichelle Nichols. Lindsey Choo for The Bronx Ink

“[Other] comic cons are more expensive,” said Danira Roman, a student at Bronx Community College who works with children with special needs. She added that Saturday’s convention was inviting.

Other attendees were in agreement, making references to New York Comic Con, where a one-day ticket costs $67.75 according to its website.

“It’s kind of tight right now with a lot of parents, especially mine” said Aryanna Chiraunjilal, a Bronx Community College student. “So having this free Comic Con at the college, it provides a safe environment to bring the kids out here and give them an opportunity to be excited, to explore, to meet new people, especially to be creative.”

Posted in Arts, Bronx Life, Culture, Education, Education, Multimedia, Northwest BronxComments (0)

Residents Voice Concerns Over Planned School and Housing Development

Bronx residents voiced concerns Tuesday, over a proposed development that would include a new school and apartment complex at the site of the former Church of the Visitation at the first in-person Community Board  8 meeting since the pandemic.

Tishman Speyer, a real estate investment firm, purchased part of the former site of the Church of the Visitation, located at 171 West 239th Street in Kingsbridge, and plans to build a 336-unit residential building with approximately 70 parking spaces. The other part of the site was purchased by New York City School Construction Authority to build an approximately 736-seat school.

“We had advocated for a school on that site. They’re accommodating the school but the school that they’re accommodating is reduced to one-quarter of the property,” said Christina Carlson, a college professor at Iona University who lives close to the site.

Visitation School at 171 W. 239th St. was closed in 2017. Mingxuan Zhu for The Bronx Ink

“It doesn’t allow for a playground, it doesn’t allow for outdoor space. It’s terrible. It’s just not appropriate for the neighborhood,” Carlson said.

The Church of Visitation was closed in 2015, and its parochial school was closed in 2017. New York State 81st District Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said that since then, he has been proposing a new school. Building a new school at the site would be ideal since there are four school zones, each within a few blocks away, and the new school can alleviate the overcrowding at the other schools.

However, Tishman Speyer’s residential housing program is going to occupy 1.3 acres of the site, leaving the school with only half an acre.

“I want the school on the site, on the whole site,” said Dinowitz in the meeting. “It’s very important that we get that the school is going to be crammed into a little corner, a little part of that site. And it’s just not enough.”

There were also concerns about the housing complex.

Tishman Speyer is going to build an eight-story building with 25% studio, 45% one-bedroom, 20% two-bedroom, and 10% three-bedroom, resulting in more than 40 units per floor, according to Gary Rodney, the Managing Director and the Head of Affordable Housing at Tishman Speyer. The project is going to be built between Van Cortlandt Park South and 239th Street, and between Broadway and the entrance to the Major Deegan Expressway.

Residents are also worried that building a school and residential housing with just 70 parking spaces is going to add more pressure to the already congested corridor.

“Imagine what it would be like with at least an additional 1,000 vehicles including dozens of school buses, staff, teachers and private cars,” said Giovanni Puello, a retired consultant who also lives close to the site. “This is a recipe for a disaster.”

Carlson also voiced her concern about the traffic at the school.

“Where will they gather in the event of a fire drill, or god forbid, a fire when the fire trucks can’t get to them because of the traffic,” she said.

Robert Fanuzzi, a community board member, who was also at the land use committee meeting, voiced his concerns over the site’s geographical region, which is vulnerable to flooding.

The Bronx was heavily impacted when Hurricane Ida hit New York City last year. Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt sections suffered most of the flooding, especially Major Deegan Expressway, right by the site.

The Major Deegan Expressway has been closed three times since Hurricane Ida.

“You (Tishman Speyer) are contributing a lot of wastewater now through additional units, residential space to already sewers that I need to tell you are at capacity and presenting a real public emergency on a regular basis now,” Fanuzzi said. “There is definitely an environmental impact of building in a flood zone.”

A spokesperson from Tishman Speyer declined an interview request, but sent a statement via email.

“We are pleased to be a part of the redevelopment of the former Visitation Church site, which will bring quality affordable housing and much-needed public school seats to the neighborhood,” it stated.  

“We are grateful for the opportunity to present our initial vision for an all-affordable apartment building to Community Board 8 and appreciate the feedback we have received from the community.”

Laura Spalter, chair of Community Board 8, said that she understands the concerns of the community regarding traffic, public safety, flood planning and education for the children, however, the Tishman Speyer affordable housing project is an as-of-right project, meaning the company can take action without obtaining permission from the community. 

“We can try to influence the design, and we have set up a committee with Tishman and members of our traffic and transportation committee, also members of our environment and sanitation committee,” Spalter said.

“But this is an as-of-right project, so we don’t have a vote.”

“It wouldn’t be as problematic if it wasn’t next to this affordable housing project. People support affordable housing. They support a school. But it’s the density,” she said. “That’s just a lot of cars, a lot of traffic, a lot of school buses… Just a lot.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, HousingComments (0)

Back-to-School Giveaway Helps Williamsbridge Families

Back-to-School Giveaway Helps Williamsbridge Families

Parents and students receive backpacks, writing utensils, snacks and more. Liz Foster for The Bronx Ink.

Approximately 400 students in New York’s 36th district will start this school year with new supplies after The Office of State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey hosted a back-to-school giveaway on Saturday. 

Children from preschool to high school received backpacks, drawstring bags, folders and writing utensils.

Katian Henderson, a Bronx resident for over ten years whose children attend a local public school, believes that events of this nature benefit parents who may have otherwise felt “shame” or “guilt” seeking financial assistance. Giveaways are “important to the community,” Henderson said.

Local organizations at the event also provided a range of products and services, like access to COVID-19 boosters and flu vaccines. 

Representatives from the New York Public Library signed parents and children up for library cards and the mayor’s office and New York’s sanitation department hosted a table handing out informative pamphlets about housing and insurance alongside supplies. 

Another Williamsbridge parent, Elizabeth Douglas, often attends community events. She said that Bailey is “always doing stuff for the children.” 

This back-to-school giveaway is a staple event of the senator’s office. At the event, Bailey emphasized the importance of adequate funding for schools, a “diverse” and “inclusive” curriculum and ensuring that students have the chance to “rise from adversity.” 

Bailey has prioritized education since he entered office in 2017. In 2018, as a member of the Senate Children and Families Committee, Bailey sponsored Senate Bill S7983 which is currently under review in the state senate’s Education Committee., The bill would “ensure that all students entering high school have an opportunity to participate in the discovery program to gain access to specialized high schools in the city of New York.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, EducationComments (0)

The Future of Gifted Education in the Bronx

A banner hung at the main entrance to P.S. 153 reads “In Pursuit of Excellence”

On weekday afternoons, Co-Op City resident Hewan Fraser takes a walk along Baychester Avenue to pick his kids up from school. He first stops by P.S. 178, the Dr. Selman Waksman School, for his nine-year-old daughter then makes his way over to P.S. 153, the Helen Keller School, where his seven-year-old son is a second grader in the gifted and talented program. 

In pre-school, both of the Fraser kids took the admissions test required for entry to New York City’s gifted programs, but only one of them scored high enough to enroll. 

“It is night and day as far as the type of facilities, the type of education, and even the staff,” Fraser said about the difference between the two schools. At P.S. 153, his son is in an academically rigorous environment, but at P.S. 178 his daughter is not, Fraser said. 

“Part of the reason that my wife and I are still living here, is because of the attention that he gets at (his) school,” Fraser said about his son.

Much may be changing for the Fraser family.

Gifted programs have been under scrutiny citywide, given the recent recommendation by a group of 45 parents, students, educators and advocates that such programs be phased out. The group—known as the School Diversity Advisory Group or SDAG—was established three years ago to assess the state of New York City public schools and recommend ways to make them more equitable and diverse. It’s a mission that Mayor Bill de Blasio has long had on his agenda. 

Though de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have not yet offered a definitive answer on the fate of the city’s gifted and talented programs, they announced last month that they would take the 2019–2020 school year to decide. The decision will only be made after considering public input, they said.

“We have to make sense of the recommendations very carefully,” said de Blasio at a press conference held on the first day of school. “We know we are going to take the whole year for deep stakeholder engagement to really think it through because we’re all trying to figure out what’s a fair way of going forward.”

Should Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza adopt the recommendation as policy, gifted and talented programs in elementary schools across the city would eventually come to an end. That includes the nine programs located in the Bronx.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has openly opposed the SDAG recommendation and its potential implications in the Bronx community. “The path toward true equity is providing quality education to every student at every grade and the mayor’s administration should expand, not eliminate, accelerated learning opportunities for our children,” Diaz wrote to Bronx Ink in a prepared statement. “If more black and Latino students take the test, more will undoubtedly qualify for these programs.”

Back in 2017, Diaz partnered with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to produce a gifted and talented report of their own wherein both presidents concluded that the way to save gifted education in the city is to increase access by testing all pre-kindergarten public school students, not just those whose parents opt them in. 

The SDAG argued in their report on screened programs in NYC schools, however, that the test is an exclusionary admissions practice which segregates students by race and socioeconomic status, especially considering that “families who can afford to enroll their four and five year-old children in test prep programs have an important and often consequential advantage in G&T admissions.”

Using data provided by the NYC Department of Education, the SDAG showed that although 65 percent of all NYC public school kindergarteners were black and Latino in the 2016–2017 school year, only 18 percent of the kindergartens offered gifted and talented enrollment were black and Latino, meaning the majority of gifted and talented students were white or Asian.

The opposite is reflected in the Bronx where, during that same year, roughly 64 percent of all Bronx gifted and talented students identified as black or Latino. 

For Thomas Sheppard, a parent of three public school students in District 11, the failure of gifted education in New York is that the programs don’t recognize that demographic distinction. “People have an assumption that all gifted and talented programs are the same and they’re not—just like our schools aren’t the same, just like our communities are not the same,” he said.

Sheppard, who is also a member of the District 11 Community Education Council, which has not officially taken a position on the SDAG report and gifted programs, has his own recommendation for how gifted education could improve.

“These programs need to be much more enriching,” he added. “What they (gifted and talented students in the Bronx) learn should reflect who they are, not just from a culturally responsive place, but from a place that helps them develop what they want to do with their lives.”

Sheppard agrees with the SDAG that gifted programs should be phased out in order to develop equitable curriculums that served each community’s needs.  

Although the recommendation to move away from gifted programs has proved a controversial issue, those involved in making the recommendation don’t view the phasing out of  programs as the end-goal. “The idea is not to just pull the rug out and then say ‘all right figure it out,’” said Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at NYU Metro Center and a member of the SDAG. Instead the group wants the city to provide funding so that school districts can develop their own alternatives to the current programs, he said. 

“Let’s build in a process that communities can have a stake in and a role in shaping education policy and priorities,” Gonzales said.

As the father of a gifted program student, Hewan Fraser’s priority is that his son doesn’t get left behind. If the gifted programs go, so might he and his family. Fraser would consider moving to his second home in upstate New York, or enrolling both of his children in private school.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Education, Education, Featured, Front PageComments (0)

Bangladeshi families prep for controversial specialized high school exam

About 40 middle school children—all but one from Bangladeshi immigrant families in the Bronx—sat quietly inside a stark classroom at Khan’s Tutorial in Parkchester on a Sunday afternoon in September. Barely audible from the upstairs classroom were the sounds of children playing at a nearby park as the 12 and 13-year-olds reviewed fractions, greatest common factors and least common multiples.

Eighth grader Rafsan Zaman, with the beginnings of a moustache and a mouthful of braces, reviewed again and again the one math problem he missed on a practice test from that morning. Rafsan’s name was up on the Khan’s Tutorial room whiteboard as it had been nearly every week. It meant that he was the top scorer on the 100-question practice exam for the specialized high school admissions test, known as the SHSAT, the all important gateway exam into the city’s eight legendary, elite public high schools. It was set to be given on October 24 and 25–in just two weeks.

Eighth grade student Rafsan Zaman studies nearly 15 hours a week for the specialized high school exam he will take at the end of the month.

Eighth grader Rafsan Zaman studies nearly 15 hours a week for the specialized high school exam he will take at the end of the month.

Still, for Rafsan, one wrong answer meant there was room for improvement. Parents said they can spend up to $4,000 for the year-long tutoring program. Their hopes for their children’s futures depend on a high score.

“Every time the score comes back it gives me more information of what I need to study,” said Rafsan, tightly clutching an algebra practice book under his arm. The eighth grader expects to get into Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, considered the best of the best of the elite schools that include Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and LaGuardia School of the Arts. Admissions decisions are based solely on results from the highly competitive SHSAT, a requirement that is currently up for debate in the state legislature.

“It sets the way for college and career,” Rafsan said.

Three rows behind Rafsan sat Rahat Mahbub, also an eighth grader, but with a younger face and gentler demeanor. Rahat worried that his reading comprehension scores would not be good enough. His mother, Taamina Mahbub, enrolled him in Khan’s SHSAT prep program in June of 2013. She feels almost the same pressure as her son, and urges him to keep studying. “The process is stressful and the culture is competitive,” Taamina Mahbub said. “I am really nervous—usually the parent is more nervous than the child.”

For the last two decades, this private SHSAT tutoring company has successfully targeted the city’s growing Bangladeshi immigrant community. Khan’s Tutorial, a 20-year-old institution begun in Queens, recently set up its second center in the Bronx, following the Bangladeshi immigrant migration from Jackson Heights to Parkchester that began in the 1990s. The website advertises prices at $15 per hour. Parents said they pay as much as $4,000 for their children to attend tutoring nearly two years before the exam, hoping a high score will help guarantee placement in a good university down the road.

Since its founding in 1994, Khan’s has sent 1,400 students to specialized high schools. Some students come two weeks prior to the exam for tutoring, some start as early as the sixth grade. The company’s administrators recommend that students prepare for the exam at least one year in advance. “For South Asians or Asian Americans, the SHSAT has been the common path to pursue in our culture,” said Sami Raab, director of Khan’s Tutorial in Jamaica Queens. “You see testing as important and that carries over to first generation children.”

Khan's Tutorial, a prep center for standardized tests like the SHSAT, opened a second location in the Bronx this year to accommodate the growing Bangladeshi community in Parkchester.

Khan’s Tutorial, a prep center for standardized tests like the SHSAT, opened a second location in the Bronx this year to accommodate the growing Bangladeshi community in Parkchester.

For students who are well prepped, scoring high on the SHSAT is possible, but for those who can’t afford tutoring programs, or don’t know about the test at all, access to specialized high schools remains out of reach. Bronx students have historically ranked at the bottom in the city in terms of the number of children who take the test, and who score high enough to be considered for admission. Although the city provides free tutorials, such as the DREAM Specialized High School Institute (SHSI)—a rigorous 22-month program offered to sixth graders with high test scores and financial need—some feel that more needs to be done. Many, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, believe that the single test criterion is unjust and leads to student bodies in the elite schools that do not represent the public school population.

Last year, 375 Latino and 243 African American public middle school students were offered admission at the eight specialized high schools, compared with 2,601 Asian and 1,256 white students; this in a system where 72 percent of the public school students are black and Latino. After a complaint lodged by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the increased controversy over the schools’ one test admission process, Mayor de Blasio proposed a bill in June that would allow for criteria such as attendance and grade point average to be considered as well. Those in favor of the bill claim the legislation would give students without extended tutoring and prep, a better shot at specialized high schools.

Assembly member Luis Sepulveda who represents Castle Hill and Parkchester, is a co sponsor on the bill. He called the 12 percent of African American and Latino students at the elite three specialized high schools—Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science “dismal” and “unacceptable.”

“Anyone can have a bad day and do poorly on a test,” Sepulveda said. “Schools have to look at other criteria. It’s not solely about your education, it’s about your involvement in your community.”

The day after de Blasio proposed the bill last June, coalitions in favor of the test formed in protest.  Don’t Abolish The SHSAT and CoalitionEdu, as well as parent and alumni associations from the specialized schools, argued that the test did not cause a lack of diversity in the high schools. Instead, they said, the fault lay with a school system that failed to prepare more diverse students to pass it. Don’t Abolish The SHSAT has collected 4,198 signatures through its website and CoalitionEdu offers politicians’ contact information, urging parents and students to get involved. These groups claim the school district’s lack of communication about the test leaves students from low socioeconomic backgrounds out of the loop until it’s too late to study.

“The overall issue is failing K through Sixth grade and middle school systems throughout New York City,” said the head of Khan’s Tutorial, Ivan Khan. “By proposing a more holistic approach, wealthier families will have better access to more subjective resources. We strongly feel that those should be explored further rather than changing the criteria.”

While Khan’s Tutorial addresses the bill from the corporate level, tutors keep the issue at bay during weekend test prep. Rafsan and Rahat had two more Saturday classes before they took take the two-hour test alongside 27,000 other eighth graders on October 25 or 26.

“It’s just a test,” said Rahat, with uncommon calmness. “I know it’s the most convenient way, but one Saturday moment doesn’t determine everything.” Rahat’s mother believes an essay or report card should be included. His stay-at-home mom has seen too many bright students miss out on the opportunity to go to a specialized high school because of the single criterion. “It should change,” Mahbub said. “One test is not fair. One or two points and you have to go to another school.”

Still, tensions are high as the test date approaches. It may abate after the test is given, but will likely return in February when the results are announced. Middle schools, tutoring centers and the Parkchester neighborhood unofficially referred to as Bangla Bazaar, will buzz with the news of who got in where. And who didn’t.

Mohammad Rahman, a 14-year-old from Castle Hill, remembers the day last February when his SHSAT results came back. Fifteen months of prep at Khan’s in Castle Hill and countless hours studying at home were for naught—Mohammad’s scores weren’t high enough to get accepted. He would not join his brother at a specialized high school. “I felt to an extent ashamed I didn’t get in,” Mohammad said. “My mom felt I should follow in [my brother’s] footsteps.” Now a freshman at Manhattan Center for Math and Science, Mohammad thinks maybe the single test process isn’t fair. “People just study the test format,” he said.

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Wasi Choudhury writes the top scoring students’ names on the whiteboard as incentive for all of the students to study harder. “Everyone’s goal is to get on that list,” he said.

 

Photocopies of practice tests fill Rafsan’s backpack. He estimates he has taken over 20 by now. Because Khan’s Tutorial is known for giving diagnostic tests that are more difficult than the actual SHSAT, Rafsan is hopeful. “If you can get a 95 or a 96 on these tests, you can definitely get into a specialized high school,” he said.

Rafsan’s tutor at Khan’s Tutorial, Wasi Choudhury, will continue to write the top scorers’ names on the whiteboard for the class to see. There are only 2,500 seats in the top three specialized high schools and students know their competition is each other.

“Everyone’s goal is to get on that list,” Choudhury said. “It pushes them to get up there.” Choudhury, a student at New York University and an alumnus of Bronx Science said Rafsan has a good shot of “going specialized,” though tutors can never know for sure. “Stress ruins it for a lot of students,” Choudhury said. “There were kids that we said were sure to get in and failed the test.”

Rahat lives a few blocks away from Khan’s center in Parkchester and looks forward to the coming weeks when he doesn’t have to come sit for four hours on the weekends. This summer his family will be able to visit Bangladesh—a vacation forgone last summer due to his tutoring schedule. In November, Rahat plans to apply to private schools, in case the test day doesn’t go as planned.

But life will be good, he said, if he scores high enough on the test. “I’m going to play six hours a day. Nothing will matter because you got into a specialized high school.”

 

Posted in Bronx Life, East Bronx, Education, Featured, Southern BronxComments (0)

Why are So Many Highbridge Students Unprepared for College?

Josselin wants to go to college some day and her mother ,Maria Gama , is determined to help her, despite the odds. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink).

Maria Gama wants nothing more than to send her 15-year-old to college. The 34-year-old immigrant from Mexico was never able to complete high school herself, and she wanted something more for her daughter.  So Gama, who works as a housekeeper and a nanny in Manhattan, looked around her Highbridge neighborhood for advice.

She quickly realized help was hard to come by. It turns out that the neighborhood has one of the lowest rates of college graduates in the city. The U.S. Census reported that only 7.5 percent received a diploma from a four-year college, compared to 18 percent of around the Bronx.  About 19 percent of Highbridge’s residents enrolled in college at one time or another and never finished.

Even fewer–5.6 percent in Highbridge–received a community college diploma, a full 36 percentage points behind New York City’s average.

During her freshman year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Josselin was able to find a summer program for promising high school students in Westchester County. She spent weeks there surrounded by college bound kids, which helped open her eyes to the possibilities. “She saw the difference between people who study and people who don’t,” said Gama.

Still the hurdles are only beginning. In Highbridge, only 13 percent of Highbridge students are ready for college when they graduate. Many point to something called the opportunity gap. A new report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University shows in statistical terms how living in a low-income neighborhood can affect high school students’ chances to go to college.

“The poorer you are, the worse your education is,” said Peg Tyre, author who works as a director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation, a non profit dedicated to funding college readiness programs for underprivileged kids. “Education is probably the most powerful lever in reducing economic inequities.” In 2011, an adult with a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $1,053 a week in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor. Someone with no college education earned $415 less every week.

Residents in the mostly low-income Highbridge section of the Bronx are now starting to worry about how few of its youth residents go to college —an issue that had remained under-addressed for years.

“Most people don’t even think about college here,” said Chauncy Young, 36, a community education organizer since 2004.

The initiative to finally tackle it came from the United Parents of Highbridge. A member of the parent organization, Young was among those to identify programs to prepare students for college as a key issue for the year, during one of the organizations’ monthly meetings at the Highbridge Library on August 29.

Gabriela Silverio, a community activist, writes down ideas to help prepare students for college in the neighborhood, at a United Parents of Highbridge meeting on Aug. 29. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink).

Community organizers and education advocates talked about college trips and college fairs, discussions about colleges between teachers, principals and students in the neighborhood’s schools. “And explain what it really takes to go to college,” Young said. “What are the financial resources available? What are the steps? Parents just don’t know the options.”

Maria Gama, who wasn’t at the meeting, moved from Morrissania to the neighborhood in February. She said many of her friends there send their children to the closest colleges like the Bronx Community College. “They don’t know about the greater opportunities they might have,” she said. Maria Gama wasn’t aware of college possibilities for her daughter until a friend told Josselin to search admissions’ requirement for a variety of colleges.

“My family was talking about college, and that’s about it,” said Brigitte Bermudez, a 20-year-old resident who grew up in Highbridge. “Children don’t care about college. But teachers should have pushed us, they should have given us the information.”

Brigitte Bermudez, 20, hopes to return to college next year. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink).

Bermudez went to Boricua College in Manhattan for a year, but she dropped out in June. She said she didn’t like it after a while. Her professors in the second semester were not as engaging, and she felt it was high school again. She is now trying to apply to other colleges for next year.

Bermudez’s grandmother, Aida Davis, has taken her to a few United Parents of Highbridge meetings to help her with college searches. Otherwise, Bermudez said, “there’s nobody to go through applications with here.”

Schools and community organizations have so far only taken small steps to raise college awareness in the neighborhood. Last May, two college representatives came to the library to introduce their universities. Leticia Rosario, the principal of P.S/I.S. 218, said on August 29 that her school would hold a college fair in December.

Sarah Gale, a 32-year-old business consultant and member of the United Parents of Highbridge, said the process of choosing a middle school for her son —and worrying about college ahead of time— was “nerve-wracking”. “Unless we do the research to get our youth into the right schools, there’s not much hope for them here,” she said.

Her son now goes to the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a college-preparatory school in Harlem. “He’s 13, and he knows where he wants to go to college,” Gale said. “Most of his friends don’t talk about it at all.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Featured, Southern BronxComments (0)

From Weeds to a Healthy Harvest at Fordham

On most days, Dagger John’s restaurant at Fordham University earns its reputation as the most popular on-campus eating place. Students gather in the spacious dining area with music playing in the background.

But on Sept. 27, the music disappeared and half of the tables were taken over by baskets of vegetables and food scales. Half a dozen people gathered around each table, checking out and selecting vegetables and there was a line of customers extending out the door.

The interloper is officially called the St. Rose’s Garden Community Supported Agriculture Market. It is a cooperative vegetable buying club that invests in Norwich Meadows Farm in upstate Norwich, N.Y. The founder is Jason Aloisio, 27, an ecology Ph.D. student at Fordham, who is also the founder of an on-campus farm, St. Rose’s Garden.

Aloisio also works at the education center at Prospect Park Zoo, connecting teenagers with nature. (YI DU/The Bronx Ink)

“I love eating good food,” said Aloisio, “and I want people to connect to the nature through food. I want them to put their hands in soil, to see what food look like originally.”

Aloisio sees St. Rose’s Garden and the co-op farmer’s market as ways to help make diets healthier in the Fordham community and even the Bronx at large.

People can buy cheap organic vegetables, including tomato, parsley, radish, soybean, turnip, pepper, carrot and garlic grown in St. Rose’s Garden, or they can join the co-op and receive different fresh vegetables every Thursday from Norwich Meadows.

St. Rose’s Garden is believed to be the only on-campus garden in the Bronx; the only other on-campus farmers’ market is at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Growing up in Shoreham on Long Island, Aloisio learned to eat healthy food. As a child, his father, a dentist, kept no candy or desert at home. Fast or processed food was also rare in his home.

“We always had cooked food,” Aloisio said, “so I grew up with real good food.”

Throughout his four years at Fordham, Aloisio has brought that sensibility to the Bronx.  When he’s not fulfilling his teaching responsibilities as a Ph.D. candidate, he spends his time on the rooftop of the university parking garage, which he considers his private lab. His dissertation is about “green roofs” in urban areas.

St. Rose’s Garden was originally a piece of unused land that university officials gave  to Aloisio to grow edible plants like tomatoes and pumpkins in order to demonstrate new uses for wasted spaces. But he decided instead to use the 1,500-square-foot area to build an on-campus community farm for the whole school.

Aloisio first had this idea of creating a garden on the grounds last year, but wasn’t able to recruit enough volunteers.

This year, Aloisio prepared a formal proposal to change the abandoned land in the unused corner of the school near faculty parking garage into a community garden. He also went to different academic departments, trying to get at least $1,750 to buy essential materials for the garden.

The proposal earned Aloisio a little more than the minimum from three deans at Fordham University who also volunteered in the garden’s construction.

In April, Aloisio and Elizabeth Anderson, an undergraduate student studying environmental policy, started advertising for more volunteers through blogs and by sending emails to students.

On April 23, more than 50 volunteers, including students and faculty members, showed up to assist Aloisio and Anderson building the garden. They removed weeds, built eight raised beds covering 244 square feet and bought 20 cubic yards of soil to fill them. They also laid a water system and planted seeds that blossomed into rows of eggplants, green beans, green and red peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, pumpkins and basil.

St. Rose’s Garden is now producing more than 10 kinds of vegetables.  (YI DU/The Bronx Ink)

St. Rose’s Garden offered up its first harvest in September. Green leafy vegetables poked out of their beds. Eggplants turned purple and hid under big leaves. Pumpkins were still in the yellow flower phase, quietly waiting their turn to ripen into fruit.

The garden has also helped grow other efforts at Fordham.

John van Buren, the director of Environmental Policy Program who serves as the faculty advisor for St. Rose’s Garden, is including eight hours of volunteer work at the garden as part of his class.

“Aside from providing fresh, organic vegetables, and an opportunity for playing in the dirt,” said Aloisio, “the underlying mission of St. Rose’s Garden is to be an educational catalyst, both in the classroom and in social settings, for discussion about the broken food system and coupled human-ecosystem interactions.”

He seems to be reaching that goal. “He (Aloisio) is very outgoing, a good person to get things going,” said Joe Hartnett, a junior biology student in the environmental policy class who was one of the volunteers. “He always makes things clear. He is a really good teacher.”

Aloisio was Hartnett’s assistant teacher when he was a freshman. Hartnett said Aloisio brought a lot of different ideas to their environmental classes, making their studies fun and easy to understand. “He is very vocal and energetic,” said Hartnett. “In his email to me, he would say something like ‘Yes, Joe. You CAN do this!’ ”

“He is so passionate,” said Samir Hafez, an economics and environmental policy graduate student. “I admire him for his energies. He never gets discouraged.”

Aloisio says the food co-op is another important component of his campaign to encourage healthy eating.

Consumers pay $16 per week to get a share of six to eight pounds of vegetables and fruit. They agree to buy produce from the farmers for 10 weeks. The vegetables are delivered to Dagger John’s every Thursday for less money than in the supermarket because there is no middleman.

Consumers don’t know what they will get for the week; it depends on what’s available. All the vegetables are picked less than two days before the market.

Katie Buckle, a sophomore at the Gabelli School of Business, did some math with her two roommates. They realized that it would only cost about $5 per person to receive more than enough healthy fruit and vegetables so the three of them decided to pool their money and buy a share together.

“The local farmers send whatever produce they have freshly harvested that week, so our weekly bounty will change and we will likely receive new fruit and vegetables we’ve never tried before,” said Buckle. “To me, this element of surprise is the best part.”

There are currently 137 shares of the co-op, more than Aloisio expected. “We were aiming for 50, and we got 137!” said Aloisio. “I was a little overwhelmed.”

Three resident assistants bought some shares to set up a little farmers’ market in their dorms.

“It helps me to keep a healthier diet,” said Jordan Higgins, a senior biology student. Higgins said she had to Google how to cook much of the produce, but it made her eat more vegetables.

Norwich Meadows Farm also provides vegetables to students at Fordham’s  Lincoln Center campus.

Both the co-op and St. Rose’s Garden share space at Dagger John’s. The student-run farmers market allows people who didn’t buy a share in the co-op the opportunity to enjoy fresh vegetables.

John Craven, a Fordham business professor, was one recent satisfied customer. “This is the best baby carrot I have ever had,” he said as he sampled a small fresh carrot grown in St. Rose’s Garden. He did not even scrub off the mud before he ate a second one.

Money earned by selling produce from St. Rose’s Garden goes to the daily maintenance of the garden.

“This is really not for profit,” said Aloisio. “We just want to get the food to people.”

The first day of the two markets was especially long for Aloisio. More than 200  people stopped by. Even though there were three volunteers helping him, Aloisio still had to answer all the questions about the food and the garden, organize containers and refill vegetables, and find bags for those who forgot to bring one.

St. Rose’s Garden has donated a total of more than $1,000 worth of vegetables to Part of the Solution since the first day of the farmer’s market. (YI DU/The Bronx Ink)

Four full containers of vegetables were left after the first day. Aloisio and his volunteers donated all the vegetables to a local non-profit group called Part of the Solution. These vegetables are repacked in Part of the Solution’s food pantry.

Aloisio would like to have more efforts in the Bronx beyond Fordham. Statistics from the Department of Health show that  only 6.3 percent of Bronx residents eat the recommended five daily servings of fruit or vegetables.“I hope to get more people involved,” he said, “Maybe refugees in the Bronx can come and work in the garden. Or maybe make it a refugee garden or a asylum garden.”

At the moment, however, it’s hard for people outside of the Fordham community to benefit from the garden. Visitors have to show a valid ID and pass a security guard to get on campus.

In the meantime, Aloisio is focused on keeping St. Rose’s Garden working smoothly.

All volunteers work on a weekly basis now. But as the mid-term approaches, a lot of students are too busy to help. Aloisio dedicates most of his time to the garden.

“I have free time, somewhere, not really,” said Aloisio, as he dropped off four containers of vegetables at Part of the Solution — alone.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Education, Food, Health, Multimedia, North Central Bronx, Slideshows, The Bronx BeatComments (0)

Bronx Students Protest Presence of Police School Safety Officers

Students and Bronx advocacy groups are now trying to work with School Safety Officers  to improve relations and bring peace with dignity to the schools. (JUANITA CEBALLOS/The Bronx Ink)

Grover Vazquez, an 11-year-old former student at P.S. 55 in the Bronx, was terrified when he saw one of his friends get arrested in the middle of class. A police officer assigned to the school was called in when Grover´s classmates started fighting over a pencil. As the officer handcuffed one of the students, Grover hid under his desk because he thought the officer was going to take him too.

When he got home that day in March 2011, he asked his mother, Esperanza Vazquez, why police officers arrest kids who misbehave. “He is a little boy,” Grover told his mother. “He is my friend. We´re not criminals.” It took Vazquez weeks to convince her son that school was a safe place.
The arrests at P.S. 55 were just a few of the hundreds that take place every year in classrooms across the city. In the first half of 2012, the New York City Police Department’s School Safety Division arrested 540 New York City students; 164 of those arrests took place in the Bronx. Although the borough represents only 21 percent of the city’s school enrollment, 30 percent of the total arrests and 51 percent of the total summons were issued there.

Esperanza Vazquez’s son was terrified when he saw one of his friends get arrested in the middle of class. (JUANITA CEBALLOS/The Bronx Ink)

“My son was really traumatized,” said Vazquez, a Mexican immigrant. “There has to be a positive approach to disciplining kids. The excessive use of force is never a solution.”

Before 1998, the Department of Education supervised safety officers in schools. But that year, then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani transferred control of the school division to the police department over protests from students, parents, educators and community leaders who claimed that police in schools would disrupt learning.

In January 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the Impact Schools initiative, which allowed the presence of New York Police Department to be increased in schools where there was a high level of reported crime.

In the years since then, the responsibilities of school safety agents have increased. They now monitor entrances, exits and hallways, operate scanners, cameras and metal detectors and verify students and staff identifications.

New York Police Department School Safety Division data reveals that school arrests disproportionately affect black and Latino students in the Bronx. Of those arrested, more than 47 percent were Latinos and 52 percent were black. As reported by the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York — a coalition of students, parents, advocates, educators and lawyers — 82 percent of students citywide that have to go through metal detectors are black or Latino. But the city’s Department of Education demographic enrollment data shows that Hispanic and black students account for only 68 percent of the city’s school population.

The  School Safety Division did not respond to a request for comment despite repeated attempts.

Aiesha Vegas, an 18-year-old Hispanic student at Satellite Academy in the Bronx, feels that Latinos have to constantly “watch their backs.” “They look at us as criminals,” she said. “We are targeted because they categorize us. When you arrest young students, all you do is harm them. Once you’re in the system, it´s going to be really hard to get a job.”

Although there is only a difference of 5 percent in the Hispanic population of the Bronx and Queens, the number of arrests in the Bronx is almost triple those in Queens. While 78 were registered in the Bronx, 27 took place in Queens.

For Shoshi Chowdhury, the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York coordinator, the numbers reflect an alarming racial disparity. “It definitely creates a state of fear within the immigrant students because any minimal behavior can become a deportable offense,” said Chowdhury.

The immigration consequences of the arrests and summons for Latino students depend on their present immigration status, race, class and origin. The impact can range from expulsion from the United States to the re-evaluation of the present immigration status.

As reported by the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are 5,100 school safety agents in the city’s schools and just 3,000 guidance counselors and 1,500 social workers. According to that organization, “police personnel is becoming involved in disciplinary infractions that should be handled by educators.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union claims that the over-policing of schools drives youth directly into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. (JUANITA CEBALLOS/The Bronx Ink)

The civil liberties union argues that the students are being pushed towards the criminal justice system through zero tolerance policies where minor incidents lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and criminal charges.

School safety agents receive 14 weeks of training, compared to the six months mandatory training for police officers. The civil liberties union says that the agents don’t receive proper and meaningful guidance on what their role in schools should be.

Rosalía Sierra, a parent leader with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee in the South Bronx, said disciplinary responses should start with the school´s teachers and principals. “We want them to reach their goals,” said Sierra, a Mexican immigrant. “We don’t want someone to tie up their hands so that they end up in jail.”

Since 2002, the city´s budget allotted to police and security officers has increased by 65 percent to more than $21 million, according to the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York. Schools with metal detectors spend at least $2,000 less per student each year than those without. Research conducted by the civil liberties union found that each day, 100,000 New York City schoolchildren must pass through permanent metal detectors to enter their schools.

Muhammad Creasy, an 18-year-old student at Ellis Preparatory on the Kennedy High School Campus in the Marble Hill section of the Bronx, received a ticket when the scanner revealed he had a bottle of water in his backpack. Students are told to remove food and beverages from their backpacks before they pass them through the scanners. “They should invest the money they are paying to the school safety division to buy more books,” said Creasy. “We don´t need police officers in our schools.”

“Agents are in every corner watching you,” said Creasy. “I cannot feel 100 percent comfortable, even in the classroom.”

Estefan Peña is a 19-year-old Dominican student at Ellis Preparatory on the Kennedy High School Campus. School safety agents suspended him three times last year. One of the suspensions was for ordering take-out food.

Shoshi Chowdhury, the Dignity in Schools coordinator, said there isn’t a specific set of rules that defines if that type of conduct is punishable or not. “It depends on the mood of the safety officers,” said Chowdhury.

“There are two scanners in my school,” added Peña. “Whenever I have to go through them I don’t feel like I’m entering a school. It looks like they´re preparing us for a future in prison.”

Students, community leaders and civil rights advocates claim that there is a criminalization of non-criminal incidents. Disorderly conduct charges accounted for 70 percent of the 487 summonses issued in the Bronx schools during the first six months of 2012.

Although Abdul Salam Bukanola, 16, student at Bronx Regional High School, hasn´t been arrested or suspended, he feels that the agents are punishing students for minor disciplinary infractions.

“Friends of mine have been suspended for coming late to school or for talking in class,” said Bukanola. “This policy it´s not right. Sometimes they treat us like criminals. I don’t deserve it because I haven´t done anything bad.”

Since 2002, the city´s budget allotted to police and security officers has increased by 65 percent to more than $21 million. (JUANITA CEBALLOS/The Bronx Ink)

When asked about the policy, Jaime Koppel, Children’s Defense Fund senior program associate, went a step forward and put the focus on how the police presence is affecting the learning environment. “We’re losing an opportunity to teach children,” said Koppel. “They just have to pay a fine and nobody talks to them about what they did wrong.”

According to Akilah Irvin, youth organizer at Mothers on the Move, the school system is failing to provide emotional support to students. “School principals have limited resources at their disposal to address the children’s needs,” said Irvin. “It’s all about the way we communicate with them and the wrong assumptions that are usually made by agents.”

Shoshi Chowdhury is confident that the consequences go far beyond the psychological damages. “This policy is affecting families, in particular low-income neighborhoods. Many students cannot pay the fines associated with summons,” said Chowdhury. “That has a negative impact on their credit rating and can be held against them when trying to get a student loan.”

Advocacy leaders claim that the policy doesn’t leave much space for educators to question agents’ actions. The arrest of Bronx Guild High School Principal Michael Soguero back in 2005 is an example. He was arrested when he tried to stop an officer from handcuffing one of his students and had to spend the night in jail. He was not allowed back in the school until the charges were dropped two months later.

The Student Safety Act, which was signed into law on January 2011, mandates detailed quarterly reports of suspensions, arrests and school-discipline matters. The reports allow civil rights advocates to track School Safety Division practices and allows them to draw a portrait of their disciplinary actions.

On June 25, Bronx parents, elected representatives, School Safety Division top officials and New York State Department of Education members, gathered for the first time to discuss the high number of suspensions and arrests in the borough. During this meeting, parents and students claimed that the School Safety Division is creating a criminal environment without a reduction in arrests or violent incidents.

According to Dinu Ahmed, a community organizer working on educational justice in the South Bronx at Parent Action Committee, the hearing concluded with a commitment from the Department of Education and the police department to come up with an action plan based on the concerns and recommendations raised during the meeting.
Parent Action Committee’s suggested alternatives to school policing, range from restorative practices to peer mediation programs.

“We need to provide support to the students and teach them about conflict resolution,” said Ahmed. “The city has to prioritize support for students over policing and metal detectors and not vice versa.”

School Safety Division. from Juanita Ceballos on Vimeo.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Education, North Central Bronx, Slideshows, Southern BronxComments (1)

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