Tag Archive | "Education"

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.

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Where are all the Bronx kids in the Bronx High School of Science?

As Bronx residents, Farhana Begum (left) and Ashmera Mohamed (right) are outnumbered by their classmates from Queens at the Bronx High School of Science. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

 

Every weekday when school is out, the quiet streets surrounding the prestigious Bronx High School of Science are crammed with dozens of privately operated school buses, hired to transport hundreds of the school’s 3,000 students out of the Bronx.

“Those are the buses that take everyone back to Queens and Manhattan,” said Farhana Begum, a senior from Parkchester, as she watched the bus fleets depart.

Nearly two-thirds of the school’s students come from Queens, according to a Department of Education spokesperson, while only 14 percent come from the Bronx.

“The joke is that the school should be called ‘the Queens High School of Science’,” said Begum. “A lot of the kids think Bronx Science should just move to Queens.”

The elite high school in Bedford Park once drew more than 90 percent of its student body from the borough’s middle schools. Over the years, however, the number of Bronx students has been steadily declining, a symptom of changing demographics and poor test preparation.

Many of the Bronx students who do manage to get into the competitive school find themselves struggling to adjust academically and socially to a student body that is in large part wealthier and better prepared. The consequence is that these students are both outliers within their own communities, and outliers within the storied institution that sits right in their backyard.

When 12th grader Aysha Sultana first came to the Bronx High School of Science from her middle school in Tremont, it was the first time she felt a divide between herself as a Bronx resident, and other New Yorkers from the rest of the city.

“Many of my classmates come from richer or nicer neighborhoods than mine,” said Sultana, adding that many of her friends from middle school attend nearby DeWitt Clinton High School, a neighborhood school. “I sometimes feel like there’s a big gap financially between Bronx students and those from other boroughs.”

Begum, along with Sultana, is one of six friends within their social circle that all live in the Bronx, taking a combination of buses and trains to get to school.

“Generally, the kids from Queens come from wealthier backgrounds,” said Begum. “Their parents paid for some sort of prep for them.”

The Bronx High School of Science is one of eight specialized public high schools in the city, famous for their selective student bodies based off the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT). However, most struggling middle schools in the Bronx do not offer the test preparation that is available in other schools, resulting in only a handful of students from the borough who are able to qualify for a coveted spot.

“Bronx students have to make new friends here, because most likely they are the only ones from the community who got into the school,” said Begum, who was the only student from her school, I.S. 125, to be accepted at any of the city’s specialized high schools. “It can sometimes be a difficult transition.”

Ashmera Mohamed, a senior from Castle Hill, recalled how she helped proctor the SHSAT at the school this past October for Bronx eighth graders.

“We treat it like a joking matter, like ‘look at all these kids coming in, only a few of them will make it,’” said Mohamed.  “You already know it. You don’t expect a lot of people from the Bronx to make it in.”

Besides low expectations, Bronx students also have to contend with negative stereotypes of their borough once they arrive.

“Most people think ‘ghetto’ when they hear someone is from the Bronx, which is offensive,” said Sultana, the senior from Tremont. “I think people are aware of how few students go here from the Bronx, but expectations of  kids from the Bronx isn’t too high.”

The culling of the city’s most talented students into elite schools like Bronx Science can also present different academic challenges for these students, many who went from being the stars of their middle schools, to now finding themselves suddenly in a sea of smart students.

“I didn’t have a good foundation,” said Begum. “I came here, and didn’t know things about history and stuff that the other students here knew.”

Begum described how within the first week of her freshman year at the school, she discovered most of her new friends were valedictorians at their respective middle schools.

“It’s hard for me to accept the fact that I’m not the smartest person in the place anymore,” said Begum, who was also valedictorian of her middle-school class. “But you can either be the smartest person in a dumb school, or an average person in a smart school. You pick which one you want to do.”

Of the more than 13,500 eight graders in Bronx schools, only about 2.5 percent were accepted into the city’s specialized high schools last year, according to the Bronx Borough President’s Office. However, it was not always this way.

“If you went through my high school yearbook, most of the kids came from the West Bronx,” said Andy Wolf, a graduate of the school from the 1960s, and now publisher of the Bronx Press-Review. “And these weren’t rich kids, but working class kids.”

Former school administrators estimated the school’s student body was once nearly 90 percent from the Bronx, but began to change as the borough’s share of middle class families declined, quality of schools dropped off, and poorer Hispanic and African-American residents moved into the borough.

“I think it began to change as we moved into the 1960s,” explained Milton Kopelman, a former principal of Bronx Science, who began teaching at the school in 1949. “The changes had to do with the fact that many middle class people who lived in the Bronx moved out, and we began to see more kids coming from Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.”

When Kopelman retired as principal of the school in 1990, he said Bronx students made up about 20 percent of the student body.

In response primarily to the declining number of black and Hispanic students who qualified for the specialized high schools, the city began a special year-long training program known as the Specialized High Schools Institute. However, many education experts said the program is ineffective, with the number of minority students gaining admission to the schools dropping in recent years.

“These programs are not going to be able to compensate for going to a bad school,” said Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who has studied race and education. “They really haven’t addressed the root of the problem: unequal access to good schools earlier that have external supports that the other schools receive.” Noguera said that unless specialized high schools expand their admissions criteria beyond SHSAT scores, students with the best test preparation within their middle schools would always have an advantage.

Some private test preparation programs can run into the thousands of dollars, which coupled with institutionalized support from middle schools, can guarantee many students spots at the city’s specialized high schools.

“My middle school had pretty high standards and the teachers helped a lot,” said 10th grader Thomas Nguyen, who attended Marie Curie Middle School in Bayside, Queens. Nguyen was among 35 eighth-graders admitted to Bronx Science in his year. “My parents sent me to a prep class. I think it was a few thousand dollars.”

Some Bronx students who can afford test preparation also flock to Queens, like 11th grader Ekramul Gofur, who paid upwards of $80 a week for a SHSAT tutoring course.

“It was pretty helpful. It was better than what I was getting elsewhere,” said Gofur, a South Bronx resident and graduate of M.S. 128. “My middle school didn’t do much.”

Even among the middle schools in the Bronx, there is a vast difference between the levels of preparation a student might receive for this critical test.

M.S. 80 in Norwood for example, did not have a single student accepted into any of the specialized high schools. In contrast, The Pace Academy at M.S. 118 had 34. The school, which houses a “gifted and talented” program, conducts its own rigorous admissions process that makes getting into a specialized high school look easy: students need to score in the high 600s on their elementary standardized test scores, submit teacher recommendations, write an entrance exam, and go through an interview with school officials.

“There are probably many students who would do well academically in a specialized high school, but they may not have the specialized high school test prep,” said Megan Franco, director of the Pace Academy. “It’s getting in that’s the difficult part.”

Administrators at Bronx Science declined to be interview for this article.  Officials from the Department of Education said they are aware that Bronx students don’t have a strong track record getting into the city’s specialized high schools, yet the issue is not a particularly pressing one for the office.

“While the Mayor was committed to placing a specialized school on every borough, that does not mean that their focus is providing borough-based enrollment,” explained Thomas Francis, a spokesperson with the DOE. “The specialized admissions process does not really allow for that kind of preference, although there may be borough based outreach efforts going on at the school level or through community groups.”

Alumni from the elite schools have made efforts in recent years to provide test preparation to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“There isn’t much test prep going on in the Bronx,” said Michael Mascetti, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, and founder of the Science Schools Initiative. Mascetti’s organization works to tutor lower-income students in the Bronx and Washington Heights to write the SHSAT. “Bronx Science is the best public high school in the Bronx, and the fact that so few students from the Bronx go there or to any specialized high school is important.”

Other alumni of the specialized high schools view the matter differently.

“We do have outreach programs seeking students who perhaps are not getting what they need for the entrance exam,” said Linda Klayman, executive director of Bronx Science’s alumni association. “But the alumni organization can’t be concerned about the admissions process. This is a test school. Individual alumni always wish everyone would get the opportunity.”

One mother of a Bronx Science 9th grader, who lives within walking distance from the school, remembered a parent information meeting held at the school that was overwhelmingly filled with those from Manhattan and Queens.

“They were giving out bumper stickers that said, ‘It’s worth the trip’,” said Shanti Knock.

Still, the few students from the Bronx said they believe they can overcome the stigma of their borough with hard work.  They would not want to be in any other school.  It has graduated some of the most renowned Bronxites in American history, such as Nobel laureate and physicist Melvin Schwartz and two-time Pulitzer prize winner Gene Weingarten.

“You start all over coming here, at the bottom of the ladder,” said Begum. “One thing I honestly do believe is that where you come from doesn’t determine where you are going.”

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Jane Addams High School to close next year — NY Daily News

The Department of Education plans to close the F-rated Jane Addams High School next fall, reported the New York Daily News. It will be one of the 12 public schools that the city plans to close due to students’ poor academic performances.

Jane Addams, a South Bronx school with a 45 percent graduation rate, made the news last week after Principal Sharron Smalls allegedly gave students course credits for classes they didn’t take. Smalls faced even more controversy after students plastered photos of her dancing with a bare-chested man, covered in chocolate syrup, around the school.

Despite its dismal performance, teachers said that the school should be given another chance. “The city should beef up our programs instead of shutting us down,” said one teacher. “This used to be an excellent school.”

 

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Officials encourage Bronx students to have better diets, NY1

Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera marked National Food Day on Monday by sharing with students in Fordham that eating better helped him lose weight, NY1 reported.

Rivera, who weighed 299 pounds in June, has since lost 16 pounds.

He weighed himself during an event at the Academy of Mount St. Ursula.

Rivera began his dieting when the borough started its CAN Health Initiative, teaching residents everyday tricks to stay fit.

“I’m already eating smaller portions, I’m already making sure I drink more water than anything else, and the bottom line is, these are things that I can maintain,” said Rivera.

 

 

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Tyra Banks pays surprise visit to Bedford Park high school to encourage kids to keep up high attendance rates, NY Daily News

America’s next top student may have been among the 400 screaming, crying teens at the High School for Teaching and Professions, where former supermodel Tyra Banks made a surprise appearance Wednesday, the NY Daily News reported.

Banks strutted onstage to promote her new book, “Modelland,” answer questions and congratulate the students on beating 90 other schools so far in a nationwide competition to improve attendance rates. The Bedford Park school has raised its numbers by 4% as part of the Get Schooled Attendance Challenge.

“Any fiercely real, curvalicious girls in the audience?” Banks asked the teens, who leaped out of their seats to strike model poses, one h

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