Taking a risk

Oumou with a framed copy of her Times piece.

In the last unit of 12th grade English, our students write “100-word stories,” modeled after the New York Times column “Modern Love Stories.” At the end of the unit, each student submits their best story to the New York Times. 

This year, one of our students, Oumou Sow, was published by the Times. Her piece was “Sprinting in Senior Spring.” Here is her story.

How it all started

To be honest, I never took the assignment that seriously. I never thought I’d be the one to get published. 

It all started with my class’s science fair. We were outside in the field for one of the science experiments. My friend and I were hungry and we wanted to eat burek, an Albanian food you can get at the pizzeria. We asked our teacher and of course she said no. I knew we shouldn’t leave in the middle of the science fair, and I had never cut class, but it seemed like such an adventurous thing to do. We were outside, there were lots of kids, no one would notice, and it was the end of our senior year. 

So we still snuck out and ate burek. I felt a little guilty, but we didn’t get caught and I ended up winning the science fair. 

A few days later in English class, I thought, why not write about that experience? I finished the story in 5 minutes. 

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Why I write this blog

Years ago when I started this blog, a colleague asked me why I was writing it. She didn’t understand and for some reason, I felt embarrassed explaining. She kept asking, “But why?” and I kept giving reasons that were like bland, mushy oatmeal: “I like writing”, “It’s just a thing I want to try.” It never occurred to me to say, “Why not write a blog?”

I now have answers to both questions. 

Why do I write this blog? 

  1. I am in awe of my job as a principal, and I want a record of it. 
  2. I write myself out of my worst disappointments. 
  3. I am happiest when I am creating something.
  4. It brings my students to life. 
  5. I want more truth to be available about myself than untruth. 
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Graduation Day

Delivering their speeches, the class of 2022 shined particularly bright at this year’s graduation. 

Elira,* the class president from Albania, talked about “The breakfast club,” when her math teacher would open the classroom early and chat with the students over school muffins and yogurt. 

Adam from Yemen joked about meeting “my first bald teacher,” who was demanding yet caring in pushing his students to write. 

Christina, our valedictorian from Dominican Republic, reflected on the challenges of Calculus. 

Oumou from Senegal was still glowing over getting a piece published in the New York Times, a Modern Love Story, “Sprinting in Senior Spring.” 

On the day of our graduation, the Supreme Court was overturning Roe vs. Wade.

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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. 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 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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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

The graduation finish line

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Student artwork at the High School of Language and Innovation.

The path to graduation is different for every student, and so is our approach.
For some kids, we race to keep up with them: they excel in every course, so we look for new opportunities and train teachers to lead advanced courses.
For other kids, it’s a matter of holding their hand: we offer extra tutoring and pair them up with classmates who can support them. We encourage them. Sometimes, these students need a lot of support in 9th and 10th grade, and then turn into great students by 12th grade.
Finally, there are a few kids we drag towards graduation. Often, these are students who are academically ready to enter college, but find ways of failing courses at the last minute. It might be the fear of change and leaving high school forever, or maybe just needing some attention. For example, a student who has passed all required exams and courses might do everything they can to fail their last semester of gym.

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A test and a passion for eggs

eggs.jpgOur high school is made up almost entirely of newcomer immigrant English Language Learners.  Every May we give students a required test that measures English proficiency.  

The test includes a a 15 minute speaking portion, which is delivered 1:1 by a teacher.  The speaking test starts with a simple Warm Up: “A. What is your favorite animal?  B. What do you like to do at school? C. Tell me about your favorite foods.”  The teacher then asks the student a longer series of questions from a booklet.  Topics range from doctors to telescopes.

In our school, we enlist all teachers to administer the speaking test: physical education teachers, art teachers, math teachers, everyone.   Continue reading

In my school we sat on benches

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Student portrait, art class at High School of Language and Innovation 

As a school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, our students come from all over the world: Dominican Republic, Yemen, Bangladesh, several countries in Africa, Albania, China, Vietnam, to name a few.

However, we don’t know much about school in our students’ countries.  Recently, I decided to simply ask: what was learning like in your country?

I was prompted to do this because our school had visitors last week.  A group of new teachers were touring the school to learn best practices for supporting English Language Learners.

As part of the visit, I organized a student panel with two of my teachers.  The teachers choose five 9th and 10th graders and ensured they represented several countries:  Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Albania.  The students had lived in the U.S. anywhere from 4 months to 2 years.  Continue reading