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Story Publication logo July 6, 2015

New York City: Navigating a Struggling Educational System

Image by Alice Proujansky. United States, 2014.

Millions of women from poor countries come to work in America as caregivers or nannies. Who looks...

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Guido at lunchtime in his middle school cafeteria. Image by Alice Proujansky. United States, 2014.

We went to photograph and write about Guido at his school one day for Pacific Standard magazine.

He was 14 and loved soccer, his friends and his clean red sneakers.

Alice was familiar with the visual vocabulary of a large, struggling New York City school: motivational posters on cinder block walls, designer shoes in pungent cafeterias, bored faces framed by classmates' eagerly raised hands. She knew the exhaustion of a burned out teacher, the confusion of a new immigrant parent, the frustration of a disrespected student.

As a dedicated and inexperienced photographer she started teaching photography to teenagers not that different from these kids. She worked with court-involved youth, watched after-school students. She talked with activists.

When she was in her twenties, Alissa taught older teenagers. She prepared them for their reading and writing exams—ESL students piecing together their personal histories in Russian and Spanish-inflected English, writing with great difficulty in lacy handwriting or with too much white-out. (Most of them couldn't afford PCs.)

Nearly two decades after she first taught junior college out in Coney Island, she was reporting the story of Guido not far away, in Queens.

Alissa remembered the college freshmen at the most chaotic community colleges as she watched Guido's classmates. In the bustling school, she thought of the years when she researched two books on teenagers, which often involved going into schools, once or twice in the guise of a teenager herself, introduced oh-so-incorrectly as an "exchange student," a glittering butterfly around her neck, a beanie hiding the new traces of post-adolescent aging on her face. She remembered the kids whose parents were sure they were gifted and who sought out pricey specialized schools and tutors for their children and the bright teenagers she met in New Orleans before Katrina who were simply thrilled to have anyone ask them their stories. The class divisions around high schools and colleges she witnessed as a younger journalist and before that as an educator had not eased with time in her city. In some ways they were even worse.

For Alice, it was a relief to bring her two kinds of work together to tell a story she'd seen so many times. Despite cyclical attempts at education reform, schools continue to fail students in many ways. Teachers burn out, education schools don't address classroom management in depth, programs place inexperienced teachers in difficult schools, parents lack the knowledge and time to advocate for their children.



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