Students helping students: How free pizza started a Brooklyn teen’s career helping his peers get to college

Jamel Burgess, far left, stands with other youth advocates.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Jamel Burgess wasn’t sure why some people went to college and others never seemed to make it.

Now, he’s well aware of the barriers that keep students from higher education, from the big — family strife — to the relatively small, like CUNY’s application fee.

That knowledge has been hard won. Burgess, 25, has spent 10 years working with students hoping to get into and succeed in college, a process that started at the Franklin K. Lane campus when he was a student there getting its Student Success Center off the ground.

That center trains students to help peers through the college admissions process by means of workshops and one-on-one help sessions. The centers now operate in 40 city schools.

Chalkbeat spoke with Burgess, an organizer with the program Future of Tomorrow, just moments before he took the stage as a guest of honor at the 10-year anniversary celebration of College Access: Research & Action’s “Right to College” program. CARA has been involved with the student success center project since its inception in 2007.

In an interview, Burgess explained how he first got involved with youth advocacy and spoke of his own unexpected path to the New School, where he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree, as well as his passions for music, activism, and pizza.

Describe how you first got involved with youth organizing.
I grew up attending the Cypress Hills Collegiate Prep High School. At the time, Future of Tomorrow was recruiting students to come to meetings and basically just saying they had a safe space with food where students could come and learn how to be active in their school community. What really got my attention was the free food part. I dropped into a few meetings and it turned out to be pretty cool.

What motivated you to keep attending the meetings?
The organizer was running political education workshops and talking about things that were taking place in the city and how it impacts us as students and our schools. I found that interesting because in school we didn’t really get to talk about the bigger picture of things. We were always focused on testing, testing, testing and things in a textbook, but this was a different type of education and I really learned a lot. And the pizza was good. So I stuck around.

Something I can remember clearly was looking at how school policy and discipline codes are written, and how youth voices weren’t at the decision table. Young people are impacted by a lot of our discipline code, such as the policy to not have phones in school, the policy to have metal detectors in schools, cops in schools, Regents testing and things like that.

What were the first campaigns you got involved with?
When I started with Future of Tomorrow, the students were already working on the Student Success Center campaign. I sat on a hiring committee with a few other students to interview counselors and identify who we wanted to work at the centers. And we also worked closely with the Urban Youth Collaborative, which is made up of other youth organizations, on a city-wide level. The first centers were then open at Bushwick Campus in 2007 and at the [Franklin K.] Lane Campus in 2008.

Did the program directly impact you?
Yes, I was a youth organizer my senior year and had my own youth leader. She basically talked to me during lunch and at times I would slack off because, honestly, that’s what kids do, kids are kids. She would track me down and make sure I was on top of my stuff and I met with her during lunch or after school.

I remember her forcing me to make sure I checked my email to see if colleges are replying and emailing me back. She was really supportive in my transition to college and I’m really glad I had her. I went on to Queensborough Community College where I studied music production.

I have three brothers and only one of them actually made it to college, my younger brother. A year or two years after he graduated high school, I kept having conversations with him about getting into college and then finally he enrolled into Queensborough Community College. That’s also an important thing to highlight: He got to college a little later but still made it.

We come from the same background, the same circumstances, so I often think what could have happened if he had had a youth leader or student success center.

And why music production? Is that another one of your passions?
I remember telling my youth leader and my college counselor that the only thing I would ever want to study in school was music. I wasn’t really an A student. School didn’t really move me, but music did.

My school definitely did not have music programs. A lot of my music that I got to experiment as a young person was in my mother’s church, but there were a few opportunities in high school, like talent shows, where I got to showcase my music. Everyone knew me as the music guy. I wrote lyrics, I wrote songs, and produced beats.

And I am not back burnering my music now. I’m studying at the New School where I’m basically trying to combine my passions. I’m self-designing a major around art and activism, looking at the ways we can use music and art to create social change in communities.

Where do you see youth advocacy in your future?
I think I definitely eventually want to run my own nonprofit. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I can keep dreaming it. But I definitely want that. Supporting my community with a strong focus on youth leadership and the arts and advocacy as well. And to continue making great music.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”