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Solving Problems by Bridging Community and Higher Education


Pratt Institute

Frances Bronet, one co-author, during an event of Pratt’s "Blue Week" (photo: Pratt)


Across the country, the shortage of affordable housing and rising homelessness threaten the vitality of our cities as areas of opportunity and centers for commerce, creativity, learning, and a foundation for our sense of identity. Educational institutions should be active partners addressing these issues in their cities and communities.

When Chhaya CDC, Cypress Hills LDC, and other community groups in Queens and Brooklyn identified informal basement apartments as both a challenge to the health and safety of their residents and also a chance to create safe affordable housing, we saw an opportunity to serve, by leveraging the expertise of Pratt Institute faculty and students through our Pratt Center for Community Development to examine and help the community groups realize their vision.

A new pilot project announced earlier this year with the support of City Council Members Inez Barron, Rafael Espinal, and Brad Lander in partnership with Mayor Bill de Blasio will make East New York the first neighborhood in New York City to test specific new measures designed to ensure the safety of tenants and legalize many basement apartments.

By legalizing apartments, residents will be empowered to finally demand leases and can be confident that their unit is safe for themselves and their families.

For lower- and moderate-income homeowners who rent out part of their homes to bring in extra money to help cover their bills, the city will provide assistance to enable them to properly outfit their basement units to meet new fire and safety code standards.

This was a major achievement for the community and an important step toward addressing their housing needs as well as protecting the residents of as many as 110,000 basement units in New York City.

As a 130-year-old New York institution, we constantly ask ourselves what can we do to ensure more New Yorkers have a safe place to sleep at night, and how can we support our city’s continued vitality and provide better models for other cities?

Over the past 50 years, Pratt Center, which grew out of the School of Architecture, has worked with dozens of community groups providing research and planning expertise to support their efforts to rebuild thousands of units of affordable housing, retrofit homes for energy efficiency, improve mass transit, and build sustainable communities.

There’s no shortage of urban issues that require new ways of thinking and much greater collaboration. With New York City’s population nearing nine million residents, failing to address current challenges on critical issues like transit, homelessness, and environmental justice today will cause even greater inequities over the long term if left unchecked.

Another critical piece to creating thriving communities is, of course, jobs. As educators, one of our most essential responsibilities is to prepare our students for the future workforce, including those positions and trajectories that we can’t even yet imagine.

Beyond empowering our students to be outspoken advocates against injustice and to be true thinkers, we want them to feel confident in their ability to succeed when they leave campus—in whichever direction life takes them.

One of the best ways of teaching and instilling confidence is by real world problem-solving. Through the Made in NYC initiative, we’re pairing Pratt students in photography, videography, and design with local manufacturers to create “communications assets” to help these businesses tell their stories, expand their markets, and create jobs.

This initiative has been so successful that the City Council stepped in with additional funding to grow the program, which is now serving 1,250 local businesses. We must continue to expand efforts like these, which are being piloted and led by private institutions citywide.

Educational institutions have a unique opportunity to drive partnership because of the expertise of their faculty and students, and their mission to employ critical research and fact-based decision-making.  

With a new administration here at Pratt, we renew this commitment. We look forward to building on our past successes and collaboratively solving today’s challenges (and those that don’t yet exist). To our neighbors across New York, from Midtown Manhattan to the outermost parts of the boroughs, we are here for you—and want to collectively create a better New York.

Stay tuned as we step up for New York in big ways. It is how we teach, how we learn, and how we drive positive change together.

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Frances Bronet is the 12th President of Pratt Institute. Adam Friedman is the Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. On Twitter @PrattInstitute.

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Bridging the Achievement Gap Through Real Renewal


nycmayorsoffice 1st dayschool

(Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


When the New York State Board of Regents met last month, the mood was despondent. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” said Regent Kathy Cashin, decrying the racial achievement gap on the newly-released 2018 state exam scores for students in grades 3-8. The reaction of the Regents ran the usual gamut of hand-wringing, blaming the tests, and calling for more dilatory “analysis.”

And then came the damning report in The New York Times on the failure of New York City’s Renewal schools program. After investing $755 million—nearly the entire annual budget of the San Francisco Unified School District—in the academic improvement of the 94 lowest performing schools, the needle has barely moved there either.

Why the hand-wringing, and why the wasteful investment in programs doomed to fail, when the achievement gap can be closed—for this generation, and with current resources?

Charter schools are dramatically outperforming traditional district schools in the city. In school year 2017-18, New York City public charter schools, enrolling 91% percent children of color, vastly outperformed the rest of the state in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math proficiency, 57 percent to 45 percent and 60 percent to 45 percent, respectively.

Our practices vary, and we don’t always agree on policies. But collectively we are offering a brighter future to 100,000 city students.

Students who attend Ascend Public Charter Schools—a network of 12 schools in central Brooklyn’s most challenged communities—are proving what’s possible.

Brownsville, where we operate five schools, is a community of tremendous potential, but blighted by failed schools. The incarceration rate is the second-highest in the city and a mere 26% of students were found proficient in English. Yet our 5,000 students, 96 percent of whom are black or Latino and 83 percent of whom are from low-income families, not only closed but reversed the achievement gap. Ascend’s African-American students outperformed white students statewide by 7 percentage points in ELA and 2 points in math.

Eschewing the harsh disciplinary practices of “no excuses” schools, Ascend schools offer a rich liberal arts education in a supportive and joyful environment. As our results have climbed, suspension rates have plummeted, down 40% in our lower schools in four years and 28% percent in middle schools.

We commit to making every child feel welcome and cherished. We don’t select students on the way in, nor on the way out. Some, including those affected by homelessness and other traumas, are afforded individual attention for years, and then blossom.

Our schools accomplish all this while holding true to our deepest commitment: to operate truly public schools that enroll all students and operate at district funding levels. All students are enrolled strictly by lottery, we charge no tuition or fees, and most important, we fill every vacant seat through grade 9.

We are but one example of successful charter education. Other networks are posting results as exciting. We are not stuck in the transformational “ice age” that Regent Luis Reyes bemoaned at the recent Regents meeting. Our students—New Yorkers’ students—are not consigned to lives where promise is crushed.

Our education officials are staring a solution in the face.

Yet charter growth may soon stall because of an artificial statutory cap on the number of new charters; only a handful now remain to be awarded statewide. Why not lift the cap? Why not have charters run even half of the Renewal schools to test our methods? Why limit our children’s potential?

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Steven Wilson is founder and chief executive officer of Ascend Charter Schools.

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Protect New Yorkers from Washington’s Cruel Actions, Oppose ‘Public Charge’ Change


jvbramer leads sep

(photo via the New York City Council)


When we look from our community in Brooklyn to the New York Harbor, we see the Statue of Liberty, a tangible symbol of America’s great tradition of welcoming immigrants seeking to make a better life. Every day in Sunset Park, Red Hook, Bay Ridge, and elsewhere in Brooklyn we see the contributions new Americans are making to the economic and cultural vitality of our neighborhoods, just as generations of immigrants before them contributed.

But America’s great tradition of diversity and inclusion is under attack by the Trump Administration. From separating parents and children at the border, to travel bans and demonizing immigrants as “others,” this administration is on a campaign to sow division and disunity. The latest salvo in this war against new Americans is a radical proposal to expand the definition of “public charge” and undermine pathways to U.S. citizenship for new Americans.

If the government determines that a person is likely to depend on the government as their main source of support (in other words, to be a “public charge”), it can deny that person admission to the United States or lawful permanent residence. Under the Trump Administration’s new “public charge” proposal, immigrants’ participation in some of the most fundamental programs essential for families’ and children’s health and well-being would count against their chances to enter or remain in the United States. These basic public benefit programs include, among others, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Medicare Part D, and housing assistance.

The Trump Administration’s “public charge” policy plan represents an unwarranted cost shift from the federal government to state and local governments, to non-profit charities, and to needy families themselves. Denying federal assistance to people when they are in need in no way eliminates hunger, homelessness or deprivation. Our communities will face new burdens in addressing gaps in services.

It is clear that the Trump Administration’s overly broad definition of “public charge” would have far-reaching effects. One in four American children have at least one immigrant parent. In addition to the categories of individuals directly affected by the policy, fear and confusion would cause most immigrants to forgo benefits for all means-tested federal, state, and local programs.  The dis-enrollment from public benefits would cause disruption in the lives of millions of needy people, harm individuals’ well-being, and undermine local economies here in New York and across the United States.

We all need to raise our voices against this proposal. And we have an opportunity to do just that. The Trump Administration cannot implement this radical change until after it has considered comments submitted by members of the public.  In our democracy, this is an important check on unfettered rulemaking by the executive branch. Help make that check a real one by submitting your comments through regulations.gov by December 10.

Get your neighbors, families and friends to comment as well. Our nation is at its best when people join arms and stand together for the values that have built America.

Join the thousands of people in the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition in speaking out to stop this mean-spirited and harmful potential rules change.

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Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix W. Ortiz represents parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @Felixwortiz.

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