Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.
He and I spoke recently for a story I wrote for GothamSchools about the college readiness class he teaches at a small, South Bronx public school:
“On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.
Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.
The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.”
Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.
At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.
Computers are cool now, right? This is what the venture capitalist Fred Wilson asked me this last week, when I interviewed him about his ambitious plans to recreate the rigorous Stuyvesant High School computer science curriculum in a new, software engineering-themed public school opening this fall. Unlike Stuy, which is a hyper competitive specialized school, the Academy for Software Engineering will be “limited unscreened” which is basically education jargon for “open to any student, regardless of their academic performance.”
In Room 307 of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, 23 students spent a recent afternoon copying tables and number trees representing a mathematical problem-solving technique used in graphic design computer software.
The students, who all won admission to Stuyvesant by posting top scores on an entrance exam, listened raptly as their teacher, Mike Zamansky, walked them through the complex algorithm behind “seam-carving,” a process used in resizing images. Then Zamansky checked to make sure they understood.
“No problem? Seems reasonable? or ‘Huh’?” he asked, offering students the chance to signal by a show of thumbs whether they understood or needed more help. No one pointed a thumb down.
Zamansky has been teaching computer science since 1995, through a program he designed for students to follow from sophomore to senior year. Stuyvesant’s program is the only rigorous computer science sequence in the city’s public schools and one of the few in the country.
Now it is the inspiration behind a new city high school that aims to change that.
Founded by an influential venture capitalist with deep ties to the technology industry and a young principal fresh from the city’s training program, the Academy for Software Engineering will be the city’s first school to focus on software engineering. The goal is to extend the approach of Zamansky’s classes — which teach problem-solving, network communications, and programming language literacy — to any student in the city, even if they can’t make the cut for Stuyvesant or don’t even have a computer at home.
Read the rest here.
1.) I was inspired to make my first purchase on Etsy after I saw a photo on Facebook of this screenprint hanging in an acquaintance’s home:
It reads “Attention Customers, An Inbound Train Toward the Loop Will Be Arriving Shortly,” over a Chicago Transit Authority El train. It’s hanging in my living room now.
2.) A friend—or rather, the loved one of a loved one—handmade this leather bracelet and matching key chain for me to mail to another loved one. It’s a Happy Valentine’s Day—Happy Birthday—Get Well Soon, Dear—present compressed into one. They were so beautiful I had to take a grainy picture in the post office before packing them away:
I think a home without books gives off an upsetting vibe somewhere between nomad and serial-killer—the gaps in the bookshelves make everything else look slightly uprooted.
I try to avoid betraying how uprooted I often feel, but in the early months of my move to New York City the absence of the books I had dutifully lugged from California to my college dorm room to my first and second apartments made me feel worse than anything else. When I had guests over I prominently displayed The City Room and The Day Kennedy Was Shot and River Town by my bed, and always apologized, like the lone shortstack of books was a character flaw.
Last week Ben sent me the penultimate box of books I left sitting on his shelves in Chicago, and finally my bookshelves are full. Every time he sends some books he has to chose which ones he thinks are most important to me.
This month it was:
The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow
Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Wind-Up bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
New and Collected Poems of Czelsaw Milosz
The Completed Poetry of Cesar Vallejo
Real Live Nude Girl by Carol Queen
Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel
He also sent me a letter. I’ve been thinking a little about the value of letters because I just got my first Letter in the Mail from The Rumpus this week, written by the hilariously insightful Margaret Cho. To have an address, and see it used, is a new comfort to me.
Ben used to write me sweet notes on index cards to accompany holiday presents and anniversaries. This time the letter came handwritten on a lose sheet of notebook paper he cribbed from one of the half-dozen “Evidence” reporter’s notebooks I have in circulation. It says:
Sheets of reporter’s notebook paper are the new index cards, dontcha know? In any event, here is a box of books for you. When I was making it—trying to figure out which of the volumes remaining in the smaller-but-still-bigger-than-I-feel-like-it-has-any-right-to-be-at-this-point pile you would most appreciate, I came across The Book of Daniel, and remembered first-year Ben in a now non existent Border’s, agonizing over what to get this bright young thing who cared about social justice and good writing. Things have changed so much since then, since we gushed back and forth at each other about Hamlet, Ulysses, Godot, but that first shared love remains, even if there’s never enough time anymore. I know we’ll share it in the future too, whether on dates to the theater or rolling awake lazily on a weekend morning to find you reading something you can’t wait to share with me. I hope this box finds you well. See you soon.
This fall, Orlando Geigel used his hour-long D train commute from the South Bronx to Brooklyn to practice math problems from a review sheet to prepare for his first set of college finals. The answers were written on the back, but he waited until the end of each ride to check his work.
Geigel, a 2011 graduate of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, rarely studied in high school, and he didn’t think much about it in college, either — until he failed his first midterm in October.
That’s when Geigel turned to Bottom Line, New York City, a branch of a 14-year-old counseling program in Boston that aims to address the challenges that lead many low-income, first-generation college students to drop out.
Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years. The City University of New York reports that just 24 percent of its full-time students — mostly graduates of city high schools — receive degrees within six years of entering college for the first time.
The striking statistics have prompted city and state officials to argue for the first time that schools should be judged by their students’ ability to succeed in college. They have also prompted a constellation of nonprofit groups to try to ease the transition from high school to higher education.
Some of those groups place privately funded counselors inside schools. Others outsource counseling entirely — in Bottom Line’s case, to an office in Downtown Brooklyn where high school and college students come for individual guidance about applying to college and adjusting to its demands.
This year, Bottom Line is working with 125 high school seniors and 20 college freshmen. Those numbers are set to rise to 800 high school students and 850 college students in 2016.
Of the 600 students Bottom Line has supported in Massachusetts, 74 percent have graduated from college within six years, according to the organization.
The boost came not from bolstering students’ algebra or grammar skills, but by teaching them study skills and work habits that their high schools might have ignored, according to Ruth Genn, Bottom Line NYC’s executive director.
“We don’t provide tutoring, but what we do help them with is time management, understanding the syllabus,” Genn said. “If they come to us and say, ‘hey I’m having trouble with math,’ we help them find a tutoring center. It’s advising, mentoring, parenting, advocating.”
That kind of attention is exactly what Geigel said propelled him to graduate from high school — and what he missed when he arrived at the New York City College of Technology in September.
“In high school, I used to have the teachers on my back every day telling me, you, do this or I’ll call your parents, you’ll get in trouble,” he said. “In college, the professors give you the work and if you don’t do it, it’s your fault.”
He had trouble adjusting to that culture shock until he began meeting with Risa Dubow, a Bottom Line counselor, in October after a friend urged him to apply to be part of Bottom Line’s inaugural class. For the first year, Bottom Line recruited students through word of mouth, in addition to partnerships with nonprofits that manage schools and CUNY’s Center for School Support and Success.
“It’s important to talk to your professors,” Dubow told him. “They’re not always going to be on your back.”
Dubow, who previously worked as a college adviser with the Harlem Children’s Zone, also suggested he use an array of organizational and study tools he hadn’t considered before, such as reviewing his essays for grammar and coherence before submitting them to a professor, blocking out schedules for work time and free time, and renting a sociology textbook for his sociology class.
Bottom Line structures its programs around one-on-one counseling that takes place by appointment. Geigel meets with Dubow as often as three times a week, and he is also one of many students who visit the classroom-like office overlooking Brooklyn’s Borough Hall frequently to do schoolwork. He spent a recent December afternoon there studying for a sociology exam on immigration patterns in the United States.
“This place got me back on track,” Geigel said. “I think I’d be failing without it. I would think about dropping out already.”