UAGC: Partnering with the Upper West Side for Sustainable Community

On Tuesday, September 20, UAGC held a benefit in our garden with our partners Jacob's Digs, a nonprofit of Jacob's Pickles - our restauranteur partner.

Alumni Taliyah Watson discusses the impact of UAGC on her college and career opportunities after high school

The evening was one of excitement about the deep roots UAGC has led in the neighborhood, and the ways that we are deeply  supported by our representatives and our business partners.

What follows is Assistant Principal Luke Janka's remarks to the many who gathered in support of our school, including Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President, Helen Rosenthal, our City Council Representative, Fred Walsh, the District 3 Superintendent and supporter of UAGC, and Jacob Hadjigeorgis, beloved Upper West Side restauranteur.

Check out our gallery of images from this exciting evening!

Luke begins . . .
Good Evening, everyone.

Many of you know me already. My name is Luke Janka, and I am one of the Assistant Principals here at The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers.

Those of you who do know me, know that when given the chance to talk about my passions, especially my school, I will take it—and I will talk...a lot. In fact, I was preemptively given a whole 12 minutes this evening since I have the tendency to go over my 5-minute allotment.

Tonight, we are here to celebrate the success of our Summer Gardening Internship, a program that we run in cooperation with Jacob’s Pickles/Digs New York. And to start, I want to tell you the story of Green Careers, a story that many of you may not know...

Across this city, across this country, it is the norm to walk into any public high school and see students sitting in rows, taking notes (or not) as their teachers drone on from the front of the room about decontextualized tidbits of information and procedural functions.

It is the norm for teachers to do the thinking, to frame the questions, and, if students hold out long enough, to do the work. It is the norm for students to be turned into passive vessels spoon-fed a steady mush of milquetoast knowledge by teachers who insist that only they themselves can hold the torch, that they must mediate all learning for their students, that if they’re not telling, then their students aren’t learning.

Walk into any NYC public school, especially one that serves a similar demographic as ours, and that is the culture of learning you will find: sometimes overt, sometimes, and more insidiously so, covert.

In a system with roughly 1800 public schools, and about 400 high schools, The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers is a different kind of school.

Our school is governed by three core values:

  1. We believe that students are most successful when they are held directly responsible for their own learning.

  2. We believe that authentic learning is a social process requiring students to engage each other in cooperative inquiry and the free exchange of ideas and questions.

  3. We believe that every student, no matter their needs, challenges or circumstances, can reach high learning standards.

These values play out across all of our classrooms regardless of grade level or content area, and guide all of our work and interactions with each other, our students, and their families. It is our goal to support our students as they transform into independent agents of their own learning, capable of problematizing their world, critically examining media, proposing cogent arguments, and steering their own futures.

Eight years ago, our doors opened in direct response to President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, a national call for both a solution to our energy crisis, and a renewal and expansion of technical science and career education in a country with a 50 percent college dropout rate.

We serve a student body of roughly 350 students, of whom 25 percent identify as special education students, and about 25 percent of whom are English Language Learners.

Most of our students come from Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, and various neighborhoods within the Bronx. 70 percent of our students are Latino, 23 percent are African American, 3 percent are White and 1 percent is Asian. 90 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch under the Federal Title 1 guidelines.

The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers is a successful school.

Last February, we achieved the rank of Well Developed across the board on our annual Quality Review by the Department of Education’s Office of School Quality—an accolade that only 7.5 percent of schools achieved last year, citywide.

That is an exciting statistic.

We have not only achieved high success as a school, but we support our students to find their own equally inspiring success as well. To illustrate this point: The vast majority of our students enter school reading at or below the 2nd grade reading level. When the 2015 graduating class entered Green Careers, only 17 percent entered 9th grade having passed their 8th grade State Reading Test. When they graduated four years later, 74 percent had passed the State English Regents Exam.

Another exciting statistic.

We haven’t always been successful.

The first four years of Green Careers were tumultuous. Under inexperienced leadership and a teaching staff that had a 50 percent turnover each of those first four years, students suffered a confusing variety of instructional approaches and expectations classroom by classroom. The result was a graduation rate of 39 percent, an F on our first citywide report card, and a rank of bottom 1percent. Three high schools citywide performed worse than Green Careers.

Not such an exciting statistic.

BUT, in 2.5 years, we moved from the bottom 1 percent into the top 7.5 percent—the bottom 1 percent to the top 7.5 percent. Our graduation rate moved from 39 percent to 67 percent.

Our student demographics didn’t change. Our mission didn’t change.

We changed. 

Under the mature and focused efforts of our current leadership structure and teacher leaders, we collectively transformed Green Careers into the institution we are today—New York City’s premier sustainability-themed technical science school.

As a career and technical education school, our work is to prepare our students for successful entry into college or the workforce, and to bring them to graduation so that they can make the most authentic choice as to which pathway to pursue.

A critical component to our technical science program are the opportunities for career exposure that we provide our students—whether through guests lessons by industry professionals, job shadowing, or internships—our students’ technical science education is rounded out and contextualized by early career experiences that shape their thinking about who and what they want to be in the 21st century green workforce, and how we can best help them attain that.

And that brings us to this evening’s benefit, and our celebration of another successful UAGC/Jacob’s Digs Summer Gardening Internship. This summer, we employed 9 students, 9th – 11th grade, to work three days a week for six weeks. They clocked a total of 459 hours, earned $4100 dollars in salary, and raised an additional $590 in income through their student-created and run farm stand. Under the guidance of their teachers, Stephanie Francis and Dan Tainow, and from Joaquin Elizondo of Jacob’s Digs, these students deepened their scientific knowledge—learning about vermiculture and proper technique for composting; learning about plant and weed identification and removal, and garden maintenance. Through the operation of their farm stand, students also gained the business skills of accounting, marketing and communication. Before establishing their weekly farm stand, they researched produce prices at various markets, including trips to GrowNYC Green Markets, Whole Foods, and local grocery stores. They developed a pricing structure for each vegetable, and kept a ledger in which they recorded total plant sales, harvest and weight. Additionally, they took weekly trips to a variety of green spaces and horticultural organizations within the City, such as Battery Urban Farm and The Brooklyn Grange. Of the nine students who worked this summer, five just completed their applications for GreenLife, a paid internship that maintains the gardens and grounds of Roosevelt Park, adjacent to the AMNH. If selected, these students will work from 8:30a – 4:30p every

Saturday starting this weekend up till Christmas—illustrating their commitment and growing passion not just for opportunities to work and earn money, but opportunities to work and earn money in roles that deepen their scientific knowledgebase, expand their employability profiles, and improve and beautify our local environment.

One of the gardens that my students maintained in Roosevelt Park this summer through the GreenLife internship program was just nominated for Best Parks Garden in Manhattan. We are so proud of our students, their hard work, their commitment, and their successes.

Which brings me, finally, to the ask for this evening. Our goal for the 2017 Summer Internship is to expand it: We want to double the number of hours we employ our students. We want to increase the variety of field-based learning experiences we can offer so that they get exposure to a different horticultural career path each week. And, we want to increase their opportunities to learn from horticultural professionals by offering an honorarium to individuals actively working and making change in the field so they may share their expertise with our students.

We want to set our students on a path of success full of substance and meaning.

Thank you all so much for coming, thank you for your generosity in supporting our garden, and thank you, most importantly, for supporting our students’ learning.