Students at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
In 1951, Langston Hughes famously asked, “what happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
For years, the dreams of children in our community have been deferred. They have been deferred through an army of overcrowded classes, an assembly line of underfunded schools, and a sea of broken promises. The result: far too many low GPAs, poor standardized test performances, and a high rate of placement in special education programs.
However, with the passage of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, plus an additional $1.3 billion from the State on top of expected funding, New York City is looking at an additional $8.2 billion in public school support. It’s a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine schooling in our city. Here’s how we can get it done:
1. Create an Individualized Success Plan for Every Student
Every child needs to know that we are invested in his or her future. This starts by taking a more personalized approach to the learning process.
Each child should receive an individualized success plan that accounts for academic performance, home environment, and any non-academic variables that impact his or her ability to learn. There should also be benchmarks at every stage of the child’s learning cycle, and students and families should be encouraged to provide feedback during the plan-making process. By having an individualized success plan, we can make sure our kids aren’t falling behind.
2. Increase Academic Enrichment Opportunities and Aggressively Tackle Learning Loss
There is a direct connection between the amount of time students are engaged in learning and academic achievement. The more time we can devote to teaching our students, the better they will do academically. To put it bluntly, we need longer school days and more after-school tutoring. We must expand summer school and explore Saturday school options.
I’ve seen firsthand what additional academic enrichment can do for student achievement. Four years ago, I started a free tutoring and mentoring program called DREAMChasers. In a short amount of time, we’ve been able to get our students into top schools such as Brooklyn Technical High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Stuyvesant High School.
The reason our program works is because our students have more time to focus on their studies. No matter where our kids matriculate, they enter high school with over 300 additional hours of tutoring in math, English, and reading comprehension.
The more opportunities we give our kids to succeed, the more likely they are to reach their potential.
3. Experiment with Offering Mastery Level Learning Classes in Public Schools
At the Khan Academy, they employ a teaching philosophy called “Mastery Learning,” where they focus on developing a deep understanding of concepts and mastering skills before moving to the next subject. The Khan Academy is a world-renowned educational organization that provides free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere online. It empowers students who can handle more academic work to move faster through subject areas, while allowing students who need additional assistance ‘mastering’ core concepts, additional time before moving on to more advanced lessons.
We need to transition to a mastery learning system here in New York. Too often, students advance without developing a proficiency in the basics. They’ve experimented with incorporating mastery learning into California public schools and are already seeing promising results. Switching to a mastery learning model could be the key to ensuring that our students are receiving a quality education.
4. Transforming Public Schools into Community Schools
A community school is a school that offers wrap-around services that address the well-being of our children. They provide students with access to health care, mentoring, and social services, making it easier to thrive academically. Community schools have been effective in increasing graduation rates, curbing absenteeism, and increasing academic achievement for students coming from low-income, English language learning, disabled, and temporary-housing home environments.
If we can transform more of our local schools into community schools, we can make sure students dealing with physical, emotional, or social challenges have the help they need so they can focus on their studies.
And, in the early evenings, community schools could be used as sites for young moms and dads who want to finish high school – offering free child care while their parents learn.
It’s a holistic approach to teaching that makes it easier for our kids to learn.
5. Expand College or Career Readiness Fellowship Programs for Out-of-School and Out-of-Work Students
We need to do a better job preparing our young people for life after high school. As of December 2017, the three-year graduation rate at CUNY community colleges was just 22%. That is an incredulously low number! Furthermore, nearly 25% of all young people ages 18 to 24 are unemployed and not enrolled in school. The answer is more college or career readiness opportunities so that disconnected youth can thrive in college and build a career.
For high school graduates interested in enrolling in college, they would attend classes that would help them improve their math, writing, and reading comprehension skills, as well as prepare them for life as a college student. If they’re more prepared for college, they are more likely to graduate.
For those interested in a career, course work would be focused on preparing them for jobs in high-need and high-growth sectors. Even now, there are job opportunities in areas such as information technology, financial services, climate-resiliency, and health care. With the proper training, we can put our young folks on track to securing jobs that pay a competitive wage and achieve the financial stability needed to raise a family. It could make all the difference for youth in danger of becoming disconnected.
In 2019, the city created CareerReadyNYC, to help disconnected youth prepare for the workforce. However, because of the pandemic, things have changed. Here in Southeast Queens, we’ve seen a surge of out-of-school and out-of-work students. By increasing our investment in career readiness programming, we can get some of our most vulnerable young folks back on track.
With the state and federal funds we are about to receive, we have a bona-fide opportunity to reset our public school system and offer a quality education to our students.
Let’s make the commitment to individualize the learning process and expand enrichment opportunities.
Let’s implement a mastery learning system and build more community schools.
Let’s expand college and career readiness programs that give our kids the support they need after graduating high school.
Dreams only defer if we let them. It’s time to take back our children’s future.
Jason Myles Clark, Esq. is the founder of the free tutoring and mentoring program DREAMChasers and a Democratic Candidate for City Council in Queens’ District 27. On Twitter @jasonmylesclark.