silicon city

Want to boost students' tech skills? There's an app class for that

Adam Israfil pitches his book reviewing app to peers at NYC Generation Tech.

“Have you ever worried about lost papers?” Steffany Ceron read from a notecard to three fellow students powwowing in a semicircle of desks. “Well don’t worry, this app can help.”

Ceron and her peers were among a half-dozen groups of high school students feverishly preparing to present their ideas for mobile phone applications designed to help students stay organized, prepare for exams, or make clothing and food choices. Together, the 29 students are enrolled in New York City’s Generation Technology, a fledgling summer program that teaches city high school students how to design and market apps that solve common educational problems.

Over two weeks this August, the students — who range from native New Yorkers with experience building digital tools to recent immigrants — are receiving a crash course in digital entrepreneurship, funded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The program represents one prong of the Bloomberg administration’s recent push to remake New York City into a technology hub to rival California’s Silicon Valley. Like the computer engineering-themed school that’s set to open next month, Generation Tech aims to seed technology talent locally by investing in city students.

During the day-long classes, the students review a manual on entrepreneurship, calculate the costs and benefits of various business models, and listen to lectures from the founders of local technology start-ups such as Kickstarter. The class is fast-paced and packed with group presentations and discussion questions designed to get students thinking creatively about business: What is the lifetime value of a New York Times subscriber to the company? How would you help a rapper promote a show in Queens?

To be eligible, students must come from a low-income family or attend a school where at least half of students come from low-income families. Only a few of the participants had experience creating mobile apps before this summer, and many said the program also marked their first time practicing public speaking.

“This is the kind of stuff that you don’t learn in school, so that’s a big bonus of the program,” said Sara Elhachimi, a 10th-grader at Townsend Harris High School. “A lesson we had on the first day was about networking and how important that is, like to have a firm handshake and good posture. Of course some of that is common sense, but to reinforce that here is really cool.”

Elhachimi’s first brush with coding came in fifth grade, when she taught herself basic HTML to customize her profile on a gaming website called Neopets. When it was her turn to stand in front of the rows of desks and pitch her app idea, she described an age-old student problem.

“So you’ve just gotten back from six hours of school,what’s the first thing you do—your homework, right?” she said, glancing up from a notecard. “No. You’re hungry, so you have to eat.”

But students don’t usual eat dinner for several hours after school gets out, Elhachami said, so students might be tempted to eat unhealthy but easy to prepare snacks. As a solution, she proposed an app that would track students’ food habits and suggest healthy meals they could create using food around their house.

“People who have foods planned out are healthier in the long run,” she added.

NYC Generation Tech is being run by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization that teaches students about forming businesses, and is funded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The program, whose participants will continue to meet through the fall, culminates in a competition with a cash prize for the best app.

Jordan Runge, the program director, said his goal is to help students view technological experimentation as within their reach.

“We want to show students that you do have the potential to actually start a tech based business because the barrier entry is so low and the climate in the city is really favorable right now to starting new things,” he said. “We want to give them the basics of the entrepreneurship piece and expose them to as many different aspects of the tech sector that they could eventually be pursing as they become adults.”

A student group presents a business idea to the rest of the class.

To apply, students were required to submit three essays introducing themselves and describing their interest in the program. Because of the tight timeline for creating the program, which the EDC only started developing in February, Runge said the NFTE spread the word of available slots through schools where the organization already works with students and runs business competitions. But Runge said NYC Generation Tech is able to do much more with students than school-year programs.

“A  lot of the schools that we work in, with free and reduced lunch rates of 50 percent or more, don’t have the tech infrastructure there to support programs like this,” he said. “The city itself is moving in that direction in terms of entrepreneurship, and how could you teach entrepreneurship without really teaching the tech aspect of it?”

Some of the students said they had only received technology related instruction at their schools through NFTE, while others said they would be able to take traditional computer science classes once they reach 11th or 12th grade.

Over the first week of the program, Runge told students to think about perennial student problems that technology could ease. After they each gave two-minute long presentations, he encouraged students with similar ideas to work together, and told the rest to be assertive about convincing their peers to abandon their individual ideas and form groups around a handful of the best ideas.

Most of the students pitched projects to help others stay organized, for example by by using phone cameras to take and save pictures of class notes and handouts, or by using voice recognition software to take notes for the students. Others ran the gamut from an app to let students discuss personal problems with their peers anonymously, a map of fun city events for the under-18 crowd, and an app that would wake its user up with an alarm timed to the buses and trains en route to school.

As they wrapped for lunch, most of the students didn’t waste any time trying to convince others to abandon their plans and form alliances with them, some even agreeing to meld product ideas together.

Jose Reynoso, a 10th-grader from Manhattan’s High School of Economics and Finance, was quick to pitch his app for creating a personal stock portfolio to two students standing behind him in the line to grab food. They were Harry Trustman and Adam Israfil, who both envisioned book reviewing programs and had already vowed to pair up.

It was a hard sell.

“This app helps people,” Reynoso said about his own program. “How are you helping people?”

“We’re helping people raise their reading levels,” Israfil said.

“But most kids don’t want to read. Books are boring,” Reynoso replied. He asked them to consider joining his project instead, with the promise that it would help them make money. But Israfil balked.

“I like your idea, but it’s not targeting a specific group, it’s really broad,” he said.

With that, they shook hands and the boys turned to the spread of wraps and cookies. Reynoso scanned the room and set off for another table of lunching app builders.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede