Showing skin

Students at HSLI doing henna.

In a diverse high school like ours, students’ clothing can fall at two ends of the spectrum: revealing, or very conservative. Students from Dominican Republic might see a crop top as normal school wear, while a student from Yemen might see a female’s bare arms or hair as taboo. It’s an interesting balance. 

Where do I stand with it? 

Part of me doesn’t want to think much about it– as long as students are wearing clothes, I’m OK. When I founded our school in 2011, our students wore a uniform, but  enforcing it became too much of a full-time job. Instead of saying, “Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?” I wanted to just say, “Hi!” Parents and kids said they wanted the uniform but so few wore it that we abandoned it. Now, students can mostly wear what they want. 

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Makeda from Panama

As a principal, I usually operate with generosity. That doesn’t mean my mind isn’t stingy.

A student can enter the school system at any point in the year, September to June. As a Bronx public high school for newcomer immigrants, we take kids in at any time, no matter when they arrive. About half of our students come from an NYC middle school, and the other half arrive throughout the year, days after their planes landed at JFK. We’ll welcome a student whenever they arrive.

Ideally. 

On June 1st, I got an email from the Bronx office of enrollment: a student, Makeda,* had just arrived from Panama and was being placed in the 10th grade. I forwarded the email to my school’s New Admit team and wrote, “We have a new student.”

That is what I did. 

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A job I won’t delegate

At our school this year, we do a “grab and go ” lunch in which students can grab a packaged hot lunch and take it home, or eat it in a classroom. We did this to avoid using the cafeteria due to COVID. To make sure students don’t get hungry earlier in the day, we give them a mid-day snack. 

We discovered early on that some lunches were more popular than others: chicken nuggets and french fries? There would be a frenzy of students and not a single meal would be left over. Fish and green beans? We’d end up with 50 leftovers. (Unfortunately the healthier the lunch, the less popular it is. Luckily we had a teacher who took the leftovers to a food pantry where they were much appreciated.)

To get our lunch quantities right, I assigned myself the job of visiting the cafeteria kitchen every morning. I chat with the staff, learn what they’re serving, and then together, we make a lunch estimate so there’s minimal waste. 

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A bird in the room

It’s been a quiet year to work in a school building: 10 or fewer kids per class seated six feet apart, wearing masks, while the other 2/3 of our students did remote learning from home. No more interruptions or discipline problems. I felt almost like I had an office job, hopping onto Zoom meetings and online classrooms most of the day. 

Before the pandemic, we had a system for responding to discipline or other classroom problems: teachers would send a group text, and an administrator or counselor would respond. However, this year, we hadn’t received a single “need help” text. 

Suddenly, one day in May, I got a text from a teacher, Ms. M. “Can you come to room 304? I need help.” 

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My mother isn’t home

Like all public high schools in New York City, my school is operating remotely. Overall, it’s going well, yet it’s also easy for students to disappear. 

To find these students, I’ve started to do home visits with my assistant principal Yan. We look up the addresses, create a route, and set off on our journey. We usually don’t announce our visits. 

Such was the case with Xavier.*  As he was new to our school this year, I had never met him in person, and we didn’t even have a photo of him. Xavier had done a few assignments in September and October, but had since drifted away, completing nothing and never coming to online classes. When we called his mother, she seemed confused: “He’s on the computer all day!” 

We arrived at Xavier’s apartment on a sunny Friday afternoon, crunching through a layer of snow on the sidewalk. We hit the buzzer until a neighbor let us in. Continue reading

The lonely kid

Bridge Ahmed blog

In my last blog, I wrote about a student who is thriving with online work. In this blog, I’ll write about a student who has struggled: Adam.*

Adam has had his ups and down as a student. in 9th grade, he arrived in the United States from Yemen. 9th and 10th grade were successful years for him , but 11th grade was a disaster: he cut classes and failed exams, leading to a serious conference with his father at the beginning of this year.

The conference worked. Adam shifted in 12th grade: he attended his classes, participated, asked questions. He even walked with purpose. Every day, he’d pass my office and say, “Hi miss!” as if to say, “See? I can do this, and I know you’re proud of me.”

Yet somehow, when we shifted to remote learning, we lost Adam. We gave him a Chromebook, but he wasn’t completing work. A staff member learned that Adam’s internet was spotty, so we helped him order a free, internet-enabled iPad through the New York City Department of Education, which was delivered in a couple of weeks.

Still, even with the iPad, he wasn’t completing work or returning phone calls. And we were unable to reach his father, who previously had been such a partner. Continue reading

Meeting Lucas for the first time

Colors at seaFor some students, remote learning has been a hurdle while for others, it’s transformed their lives for the better.  Today I’m going to focus on the latter.

Lucas* is a 12th grader who initially started as a like-able yet hot-headed 9th grader—quick to get embroiled in conflict, yet also quick to smile.  Over the years, we saw him mature, and even see him as a calming force for some friends.

He also has some challenges: Lucas is the devoted father of a sweet 18-month-old baby.  However, as he has needed to take more responsibility in providing for his child, he started missing school in favor of work. Continue reading

Channeling my inner Mr. Rogers

pink treeI’ve always liked talking to students, even if they’re “in trouble.”  I find it healing for me and for them.  I “channel my inner Mr. Rogers,” and try to see the world from a kid’s perspective.

When we moved to remote learning last month, I knew we had use video to bring our presence to the students—our inner “Mr. Rogers.”  We scheduled bi-weekly video conferences with classes (“office hours”) and taught teachers how to make video lessons.

However, at the beginning, a few teachers were camera-shy and made video lessons without their faces showing (the “screencasting” program we’re using gives the option of presenting a lesson with or without a video image of the presenter, so kids might just hear a voice narrating a Powerpoint).  I made two points to the teachers: one, in a school of English Language Learners, it’s crucial for kids to both hear and see the language being spoken.  Two, the kids miss us. Continue reading

To Whom It May Concern

wp-1587120790701.jpgWe’re in our fourth week of remote learning after schools were closed for COVID-19. Thinking back to last month, I am still amazed by what we accomplished in three days: all teachers learned how to create Google Classrooms, film themselves teaching, and run videoconferencing “office hours” with students.  We created a plan for a reasonable student workload.  We distributed over 260 Chromebooks to students in one day, and created a “Student Connectivity Team” to help any families that struggled with internet access.

On our first day of remote learning, I was completely immersed in setting up our systems.  So when I got this email, it took me by surprise:

To whom it may concern, Continue reading

School is home

wp-1584280807084.jpgIt has been a surprisingly rich week for me to work in a public high school.  I saw my staff’s dedication in a new light, and I saw what school means to kids with the very real possibility of schools being closed.

Let me say upfront that this is not a piece for or against closing schools.  My school is in learning and preparation mode: we’re preparing for schools being open with low attendance, or schools being closed—and in both cases, the need for supporting students and families at home.

A week ago, as coronavirus awareness started to spread, a few students asked giddily, “Is school going to be closed?” Continue reading