The power of our students’ imagination

The power of our students’ imagination

With the end of each school year, I am moved by what extraordinary places our public schools are.  To me, there is no better celebration of democracy than a fifth grade graduation: rooted in the idea that every single student has the potential to achieve their goals and has the right to get a real opportunity to try, that equality and diversity matter, and that we get there by organizing ourselves together, in shared, common, public schools.

This year, in commencement remarks to some of our fifth and eighth graders, I tried to convey the sense that – at what can feel like a nervous time of transition to new schools, and also a nervous time in the world – they can build on what they’ve learned in our public schools to move forward.  Change is hard, and often frightening, but it is possible to shape it.  In the time they’ve been in school, they’ve seen the election of our first African-American President and historic strides forward for LGBT equality. 

I hope they’ll bring that sense of possibility to efforts to confront climate change, violence, and inequality in the world – and also to their own lives, as they move forward to new schools, discovering their own talents, and confronting their own challenges.  You can read the remarks I made at Middle School 51’s commencement (where Meg and I were deeply proud to watch our son Marek graduate) here.

I also wanted to share snippets of some fantastic after-school arts and cultural programs that I attended during the last few weeks of school.  Too often, the over-emphasis on high-stakes testing has crowded out time and funding for anything that can’t be easily tested, badly narrowing our kids’ education.  In the City Council, we’ve therefore tried to help support after-school programs that nourish our kids’ imaginations, creativity, and diversity of strengths.

John Jay High School / BRIC Arts: Digital Media Program

The presentation of the John Jay HS / BRIC Arts after-school digital media program was – I’m not exaggerating – one of the moments I felt best about in my entire four-year term.  As you may remember, there was tension two years ago when Brooklyn Millennium HS moved in to the building, and I committed to try to help the four schools there work together, and to bring more resources into the building. 

So I was pleased last year to help initiate and support an after-school digital media program, housed at the Secondary School of Journalism but open to students from all the schools, with strong participation by students from Park Slope Collegiate and Brooklyn Millennium. (Giving credit where it’s due: I originally suggested a “school newspaper” program, remembering working on my school paper many years ago, but the new principal of the SSJ recognized that digital media skills are both essential for the 21st century, and a powerful way of reaching students.) The program was run by teaching artists from BRIC, best known for Celebrate Brooklyn and BCAT TV, but who also have a great community media education program.

The young people were incredible, and they thrived with this opportunity.  One parent told me the program was the only reason her daughter stayed in school.  A student shared that before, she had little to put on her college applications, but now she can fill it with skills and confidence because she can build websites.  Many students talked about the program as one of their first real places to work together across the lines of race and class that still deeply score the Brooklyn we love, and their campus.

They prepared powerful and funny short videos, like this one using the form of 50 People, 1 Question, getting some revealing and funny answers from a great set of Park Slope students and residents, and also a range of other videos, including a powerful one on stop-and-frisk.  The students also created the new Secondary School of Journalism website.  With this program in mind, I was excited to be able to support the proposal developed by students from John Jay High School Campus students through our participatory budgeting process for a film-making lab in their school (you can follow progress on all the PB project, many of which are school related, here).

PS 32 / Brooklyn Historical Society: Gowanus History & Future

Students at PS 32 – just a block from the Gowanus Canal – teamed up with the Brooklyn Historical Society to learn about its history and think about its future.  After a walk around the Canal area, aided by a map from the 1800s, they chose sites to research with documents in the BHS collection, made connections to our contemporary challenges, and presented this great display. They learned about the planning mistakes that led to the Canal’s pollution, as developers thought the tides would bring in enough water to naturally flush waste out of the Canal.  And they thought about history’s lessons for the EPA Superfund Cleanup now getting underway.

One great thing they discovered from history: that their own school was the site of an environmental battle in the 1899.  Through primary source articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, they learned that smoke from the “Planet Mills” factory across from the school (with as many as 500 women doing textile work) was spewing so much soot from its chimneys into the school that you couldn’t see across the classrooms.  The principal at the time, Ms. Sprole, appealed to the Board of Health demanding that the factory stop using soft coal because it was bad for student health!   

PS 230 / South Asian Youth Action: Stand Up to Bullying and Makes Change

PS 230 is one of my favorite schools in the district, with an extraordinary mix of students whose families come from all over the world, and a teaching staff who help them both to thrive as students and flourish as citizens.  Earlier this year, I was honored to attend a student “expo” of their own participatory budgeting projects, many of which were as good as the ones presented in the real process. 

Because so many of the students are from Bangladesh, I supported an after-school program run by South Asian Youth Action, or SAYA!, a great group that does most of its work in Queens.  The students chose to focus their program on confronting bullying.  They produced a powerful skit about the challenges of not just standing by, but instead standing up to make change, which they presented to students, teachers, and me.  And determined to go beyond that, they made anti-bullying posters to put near water-fountains and in other strategic locations around the school.    

Programs like these aren’t just a cute “add-on.”  They are an essential part of what public education should be.  Of course our students all need to learn reading, writing, and math, and I’m glad we focus hard on core subjects.  But I also want them to see multiple pathways for success in the world.  In a community not only of teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, and the occasional hedge-fund manager, but also of writers, film-makers, community organizers, actors, muralists, designers, and entrepreneurs of all types, I want our students to see that the power of their imagination – combined with hard work – can lead to lives of contribution in an extraordinary range of ways.