Posted on 12 December 2009 by Lisa Held
In a classroom decorated with student posters on deforestation and global warming, a group of 9th grade students are debating a law that would ban fast food chains from within two blocks of a school. Most of them balk at the idea of being kept from the choice teenage fare, but one student raises her hand and argues, “The mayor just wants a healthier city for the kids.”
The lesson is part of a unit on healthy, eco-friendly food in their Citizenship and Sustainability class, a required core course at the brand new Urban Assembly School for Green Careers on the Upper West Side.
“We were learning about…water…like, what was better, bottled water or tap water,” a confident student named Gina tells me, “In the end, tap water is still better.” Another student, Chris, points to a bulletin board above their heads and explains that they are covering everything pictured- water, waste, food, energy, transportation, and climate change.
This class is part of the School for Green Careers’ ambitious mission to “give students access to the 21st Century green economy by developing their problem-solving skills and their knowledge of green industries and environmental issues.”
The school, which is a joint venture of the city Department of Education and the Urban Assembly, a non-profit organization that aims to improve urban education for underserved middle and high school children, was created to fill a need for “green-collar” workers created mainly by the Mayor’s PlaNYC.
“PlaNYC creates jobs,” said Ozgem Ornektekin, the Department of Education’s Director of Sustainability, “This school will prepare students for those jobs.” Ornektekin explained that while education officials are not looking to create a separate curriculum for environmental education, they are finding ways to incorporate it across other parts of the curricula. The school for green careers is acting as a model for how the city will prepare students for green jobs, she said.
And the school may have emerged at just the right time. According to the NYC Green Collar Jobs Roadmap, which was published this October by Urban Agenda and the Center for American Progress, the New York City economy is creating thousands of green-collar jobs through PlaNYC initiatives such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions through building retrofits and weatherization, planting trees, and remediating contaminated properties.
“At the moment, however,” the roadmap stated, ”New York City does not have the training, recruitment, pre-employment and job-readiness infrastructure and business services in place to reach our ambitious sustainability goals, expand our green-collar workforce, and further develop the city’s emerging, high-growth green sectors.”
That’s where the School for Green Careers comes in. While the 100 9th graders attending the school are currently all taking the same three core courses- Literacy (Reading/Writing), Integrated Algebra, and Citizenship & Sustainability- they will later choose from two tracks within the school: green buildings or green spaces.
The students who choose the building track will focus on careers such as building maintenance engineering, energy auditing, building retrofitting, and green roof installation. Those in green spaces will be pointed towards jobs like landscape horticulture and architecture, urban farming, forestry management and brownfield remediation.
The students are also currently taking electives, many of which are environmentally themed, such as sustainable eating/cooking, gardening, and a mentoring program in which 14 students communicate weekly with mentors in the City Parks Department.
Alexandra Rathman-Noonan, the school principal, was especially excited about the gardening prospect, since the school has full access to a previously neglected garden on the corner of 84th St. and Amsterdam Ave. “It has been in disrepair for a while,” she said, “we’re hoping to revitalize it.”
But the School for Green Careers, which is also a demonstration site for an effort to revamp and improve the city’s technical schools called the Mayoral task Force on Career and Technical Education Innovation, also faces considerable challenges in carrying out its ambitious plan.
During class students shouted to each other across the room while the teacher spoke, talked amongst themselves, wandered into class an hour late and completely ignored the lesson for more captivating activities like ‘rock, paper, scissor’.
“I can see the focus just disappearing into the air,” one teacher told them as she attempted, unsuccessfully, to rouse a sleeping student. Her struggle to keep the students on task demonstrates the complex reality of schools such as this one, which have historically been dumping sites for teenagers who have not done well in traditional learning environments.
“We serve a very high-need population,” the principal explained. According to Rathman-Noonan, more than 20 percent of the students are special education, and the same percentage are English-language learners. She estimated that close to 90 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, meaning their families live at or below the poverty level.
In a 2008 report, The Mayoral Task Force reported that approximately 110,000 students were enrolled in the career high schools or programs, and 47 percent of those programs earned a C or below on the city’s school report cards.
The career schools tended to have lower graduation rates than the citywide rate, and the students enrolled came primarily from minority communities. In 2008, only 5 percent of the students enrolled in these technical schools were white.
The task force was chaired by former NYC Mayor David Dinkins and Sy Sternberg, the Chairman and CEO of NY Life, and their recommendations included meeting 21st Century standards, expanding paths to graduation, engaging industry leadership, preparing students for postsecondary success and increasing access and opportunity.
Within expanding paths to graduation, they laid out a specific plan for model sites, stating that through the creation of career schools based on a new design, they would “model the opportunities, challenges, and outcomes deriving from intense industry partnerships and state policy innovation.”
“The emphasis here is really getting kids into the workforce,” said the Urban Assembly’s President and Founder, Richard, Kahan, “It’s not about graduating kids who know a lot about the environment.”
In this regard, the larger Urban Assembly model of using a theme to help students make connections between what they’re learning in the academic world and the real world outside is crucial, according to Rathman-Noonan. “As a career and technical school, this school takes that one step further,” she said, “Many of our partners are potential employers for our students.”
But how will all of this really play out over the next four years as the school grows to its full size and delves into the more in-depth portion of its curriculum? How will they manage to prepare students who can barely sit still in class for immediate entry into green-collar jobs with specialized skills or for college-level training?
Rathman-Noonan acknowledged that it is a tall order, but said that there are two specific ways the School for Green Careers will tackle this issue and become a true model for both career and technical education and green-collar job training.
First, they will focus on what she calls “higher-order skills” that are consistent across the workforce and college. “So, thinking, collaborative group work, problem solving, research…those types of skills that once students have them it makes them a good learner in no matter what context,” she explained.
In the classroom the desks were pushed together in clusters of three or four, and students worked together to write speeches debating whether the fast food ban was justified or paternalistic. They were instructed to agree on a side and then to support their argument with relevant facts. They elected one person from their group to present the speech, and then the rest of the class evaluated each presenter in categories such as the quality of their argument, posture and eye contact.
Second, while most traditional technical schools were very large, the School for Green Careers has the advantage of being a small school. “We’re really building on personalization and knowing students well,” Rathman-Noonan said, who has everyone at the school, including the students, call her “A.J.”
In fact, all of the teachers are addressed by their first names. At one point, when Rathman-Noonan encountered a student wearing a hat (which is not allowed) in the hallway, she put her arm around his shoulder and personally picked the hat off of his head. He wriggled from her and shrieked, “Aww…come on, A.J,” in a voice that conveyed an extreme degree of familiarity.
This early in the game, however, it is unclear whether familiarity and personalization combined with a new approach to technical and academic training will be enough to prepare the students at the School for Green Careers for successful green-collar jobs in the future.
For now, Rathman-Noonan, said, “Our goal is to have every student graduate, if not in 4 years, than in 5…and for the students to be assessed as college ready, all of them…and then to have a specific post-secondary plan.”