Amy Zimmer, Chalkbeat New York
In promising to rebuild the department of education from the ground up, Mayor-elect Eric Adams and incoming schools Chancellor David Banks vowed to seek input from students.
So far, they seem to be practicing what they preach. Adams’ transition team for education includes four “youth co-chairs”: two high school students and two college students from the City University of New York. Adams included dozens of other CUNY students on his transition team through an internship program.
Chalkbeat spoke with co-chair Mia Payne, a senior at Manhattan’s Talent Unlimited High School, who has been on the forefront of pushing for more civic education in New York City schools.
The 17-year-old Bronx resident has been a leader the past two years with YVote, a youth civic engagement organization. As a civic fellow with Next Generation Politics — a related youth-led organization focused on cross-partisan civic engagement — Payne grappled with issues such as cancel culture, immigration, police reform and critical race theory, the academic framework that examines how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism.
After sending a memo with ideas on increasing voter registration and civic engagement in schools to Sanda Balaban, co-founder of YVote and Next Generation Politics, Payne connected with the education department’s Civics for All team, inspiring them to start a student advisory group.
“Mia is a deep thinker about how to improve NYC schools and how to improve the Bronx and NYC more broadly,” Balaban said. “Last spring when all of our YVoters were analyzing mayoral candidates, almost all wanted to do a write-in campaign ‘Mia for Mayor.’”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on your role as a youth co-chair. Do you know if previous transition teams have had such a role?
I think this is the first time that they’re having it. When I learned about that I looked at my position differently because I’m like, ‘OK, are they gonna put me on the transition team as a publicity stunt for hearing youth voices or are they actually going to address the issues that I’m concerned about and take them into consideration?’
So that’s kind of like an extra level of responsibility. A lot of the time, politics is just a picture game. It’s all about image. But I’m a product of the NYCDOE. I go to school, I’m impacted by this. This isn’t another policy or administration for me. This is my real life. So I have to make sure that I get that across.
And what exactly is your role?
I wanted to make sure that my stories and experiences are not being exploited, so I had to make the platform my own.
It’s not really responsibilities, like creating meeting agendas or anything, it’s more like, ‘You’re a participant like everyone else, but because it’s the first time we have youth as co-chairs, your story is going to be highlighted through a 10-minute session in the agenda.’
So yeah, I had that 10-minute session, but then also, something that really pushed me — I’m like, there’s people in this meeting that have the power to change these issues I’m so concerned about by shifting culture. I didn’t want to let it be another panel where we’re gonna talk about issues and problems. I want it to actually lead to tangible action.
So after the first meeting [out of three], where David Banks was like, ‘Tell me what you want. What are Day 1 priorities? What are actual tangible solutions?’ — that was my motivation because I’m like, okay, ‘cause I already know a lot of organizations that have been waiting for someone to ask that question.
And so literally following up that meeting, I spent the whole weekend just kind of filling out a Google doc of everything that I feel like we need to be focused on, like integrating New York City schools, redesigning the curriculum, career and college readiness, prioritizing to the mental health of the students, reimagining their schools’ culture, and ways to spotlight our teachers.
Tell me a little more about what you’d like to see changed.
We have one of the most segregated school systems in the country, which is mind-boggling to me because New York City is so diverse, and then you go inside the schools and ethnic diversity isn’t reflected.
So, a factor towards resolving this is the city needs to abolish the specialized high school admissions exam. I feel like a student’s potential shouldn’t be measured from their ability to answer math or ELA questions on an exam.
It is very much an equity issue with the screening of our schools. And there needs to be funding for the opportunity for every school district to redesign their own community-driven diversity plan.
We should expand education with emphasis on marginalized populations. I feel like that does not get talked about enough. There’s youth in the juvenile justice system that need quality education, homeless youth, migrant children — they’re not receiving the same education, simply based on their circumstances, which is not right. Everyone needs a quality education regardless of background or circumstances because that is how you’re progressing in society. The justice system is supposed to be a rehabilitation system, and you can’t rehabilitate someone without giving them education.
You also mentioned career and college readiness.
There is definitely a lack of college support in New York City schools, especially now with the pandemic because of understaffing.
We can have partners with nonprofits or different programs that want to do this — that want to get students mentored and give resources. That can help ease the caseload for schools. Teachers can’t provide the individualized feedback and attention that every student deserves because of an intense amount of classes they have to teach.
Another thing is just connecting with the College Now program [where New York City high school students take CUNY courses]. That’s really what got me interested in education. I took an urban education course at Hunter College and that was life-changing for me, honestly. It really just opened my eyes about the interconnectivity of American systems. I didn’t know the history of it. I didn’t know that if you’re strategically trying to target Black and brown students from an education, you’re trying to diminish a whole population within themselves. You’re depriving them of unlocking the potential and creativity of their minds and restricting them from being productive, powerful, and contributing members of society.
And [it helped me notice] how voting is so important. If you don’t have civics education, then politicians don’t care if millions are outside rallying for climate change, if less than 10% of that crowd is going to take their demands to the ballot box.
I’m working on expanding Civics for All week right now with the DOE in creating a student advisory team for the Civics for All department. Students may not know anything about government when they graduate, and statistically, it’s marginalized communities that aren’t receiving that knowledge, leaving them unequipped and civically illiterate in a nation that is governed by democracy.
And you mentioned mental health.
Students feel pressure to succeed and are worried about imperfection because their worth and potential are measured by their grades. I feel like we have to redefine what success is and reimagine a school’s culture — this is a broad issue because it has to do with the global culture of education and the way in which students are pressured to be elite. But students need to know that when they go beyond their initial expectations of themselves, and they’ve reached a level of nobility that society isn’t mature enough to honor, that is the real point of success. You should never have to bear that burden of having to get a 1600 on your SAT or having to get 100 in every class, to be seen as brilliant.
I don’t think the traditional way of testing is really effective. Students are very aware that big testing companies are just making a buck off of their stress. They’re very aware of it, but they still go through it because they want to go to college. They joke about it, but it then leads to actual anxiety attacks and leads to actual suicidal thoughts. I’m very concerned about how normalized it’s getting within my generation and the paradox of advocating for mental health while falling victim to mentally demanding educational expectations.
So we have to evaluate the way that we test students in a way that’s actually effective. Like performance based-assessments so students go into college and work spaces with public speaking and teamwork skills, rather than only knowing pen and paper. We need performance-based assessments that really say, ‘I need you to reflect on the curriculum. I need you to be creative.’
When are you going to be chancellor?
My focal point right now isn’t education, though it is something I prioritize when being civically engaged. I’m looking into engineering. I will be double majoring in aerospace engineering, and civil and environmental engineering. I find intersection in almost every issue. So in civil and environmental engineering, I find a connection between redlining policies and the disproportionate placement of highways that directly impact Black and brown neighborhoods, along with toxic waste facilities and other forms of environmental racism. And with aerospace engineering I want to kind of branch out the solutions to climate change to come up with innovations.
And then I want to minor in international policy and management so that I can spearhead multinational organizations that can bring those innovations to developing countries and understand how to do that throughout the world.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.