protest prep

‘I can be a part of this change’: New York City students prepare to join nationwide gun violence protests

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
New York City students walk out of class and march to Trump Tower to protest the results of the presidential election.

In the Bronx, students will march to call for more guidance counselors in schools — not cops. In Manhattan, they will rally at a U.S. senator’s office and demand stricter gun laws. And in Brooklyn, teens will demonstrate at Borough Hall, even if it means risking discipline once they return to school.

Beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, thousands of students from across New York City are expected to flood the streets as part of a nationwide school walkout in response to last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Their reasons for taking to the streets are diverse. In a state that already has strict gun laws, some want to push for national change. Others say they’re frustrated with the solutions that adults have offered, such as arming teachers or relying more heavily on metal detectors.

What unites them is a desire to honor the 14 teenagers and three teachers who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one month ago.

“I think it’s important to remember the people who died in the Florida shooting,” said Andrea Colon, a senior who is organizing a walkout at Rockaway Park High School in Queens. “But I think it’s also important that the nation’s reaction isn’t to put more police in or more metal detectors in.”

At some schools, the protests will last only 17 minutes — to honor each of the Parkland victims — but others will stretch on through the afternoon. At Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s most prestigious high schools, students plan to join peers from other schools in a march to Borough Hall. In the Bronx, students from multiple campuses will converge at local Department of Education offices to call for more “restorative” discipline approaches such as mediation, rather than suspensions.  

“This is the first time a protest is so relevant to me and people my age,” said Amira Shimin, a freshman who helped organize the Brooklyn Tech walkout. “I want gun control because I don’t want to go to school and be afraid.”

Here is what students say is motivating them, and the changes they want to see.

“I felt like police officers aren’t there to be your friends or your counselors.”

Sagar Sharma, the student body president at John Bowne High School in Queens, said he is walking out in part to protest the use of metal detectors at his school — and call attention to the different ways schools across the city are policed.

Metal detectors became a permanent fixture at John Bowne after two high-profile incidents last year. In April, a 16-year-old was stabbed at the school. In November, two students were found with guns.

After the stabbing, police officials were brought into the school and antagonized students, Sharma said, calling students “John Bowne stabbers” as they walked in. (Mayor Bill de Blasio called the behavior “unacceptable” when students told him about it during a town hall meeting on school safety last week.)

“That’s when I felt like police officers aren’t there to be your friends or your counselors,” Sharma said. “I just think it’s unfair for students to go through this every day — it creates a stigma at the school.”

“I have a little brother, and I don’t want to think about that happening to him.”

At the Academy of American Studies in Queens, the student council is helping to organize an event in the school’s courtyard, said Nuzhat Wahid, one of the student organizers of the event. Students at the school researched the 17 victims in the Parkland shooting and will hang short biographies of each student and teacher on the fence outside of the school. Then, they plan to release 17 orange balloons to commemorate the victims.

The event is likely to be particularly poignant for one student at the school, Wahid said, who knew two of the victims in the Parkland shooting. For Wahid, a high school senior, the event is a chance to stand against the possibility of something similar happening to her loved ones.

‘I’m going to graduate high school and I won’t have to think about an individual coming into my school and hurting others,” she said. “But I have a little brother, and I don’t want to think about that happening to him.”

“I thought, ‘I can be a part of this change.’”

Shimin was in fourth grade when a gunman stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, killing 26 students and teachers.

“From that point on, lockdown drills were this very serious thing,” Shimin said. “I had this idea that anyone could come in and shoot.”

Now Shimin is a freshman at Brooklyn Tech, where she has helped organize her classmates for the walkout. Brooklyn Tech is the largest city high school at nearly 6,000 students, and students plan to line the block around their school, holding posters and chanting. Some will return to class, but Shimin and others plan to head to Borough Hall for speeches and more demonstrations.

She admits some of her classmates didn’t feel like they needed to join the debate since New York already has strict gun laws. But she felt compelled to support the Parkland students in their call for national action.

“They were saying this is never going to happen again and that inspired me,” Shimin said. “I thought, ‘I can be a part of this change.’”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.