Volume 20 Issue 14 | August 17 - 23, 2007

Photos by Michelle Slonim

Manny Fermin, left, and Dino Tonog, students at New Design High School, produced radio documentaries on the Lower East Side for summer school. Fermin said it was a lot better than his previous experience with summer school when “you show up, stay a couple of hours, and leave. I did not learn anything.” (bottom pics) New Design student Alex Rodriguez at the presentation Friday, left. Shimay Kong is interviewed by Evelyn Ackeridge Johnson, right. In the middle is their classmate, Stephony Segredo.

Readin’, writin’ & radio are in the summer curriculum

By Annie Lok

Facing murals depicting tenements strung with clotheslines and “L.E.S.” written large in graffiti style, Manny Fermin, a student at the New Design High School on Grand St., performed in a radio play during an August 10 presentation at the Whole Foods Market café on the Bowery.

Manny, a 16-year-old who will become a senior this fall, played Ace in “Chaos,” a seven-minute radio drama about a group of friends who are trapped in one of the new high-rise condos on Delancey St. In addition to his role, Manny co-wrote and cast the play, and created sound effects — things he had not done two weeks ago, when he started summer classes at his school.

In fact, before he took this course, Manny did not know radio drama existed. Since then, however, he has learned not only about the form, but about his own storytelling skills. He said his teachers complimented him on how quickly and how well he can come up with a plot.

“If I am put on the spot, I could just do it,” Manny said.

Besides “Chaos,” three other radio plays and three documentaries were heard on the rainy afternoon that marked the end of the course. Their radio pieces were produced as part of a summer school course to make up credits for classes they failed during the school year. While many New York City summer school students sit through six weeks of classes learning the same material that was taught during the semester, 30 students from the New Design High School were given a chance to earn credits in English, social studies and other subjects in a brand new course.

The two-week stints as radio producers required students to come up with story ideas, write scripts, conduct interviews, and record and edit sounds, while their previous courses were far less active. Public high school students are often sent to large schools where area students are consolidated for summer courses and, according to teachers and students at New Design, the classes were often not worth the time.

“You show up, stay a couple of hours, and leave,” Manny said about a summer class he took at Murry Bergtraum High School. “I did not learn anything.”

It was reactions like Manny’s that prompted Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School, to seek out a more engaging way for his students to learn during the summer. Conti’s school, which specializes in architecture and design studies, just graduated its first class this spring, but even during this short tenure he saw time and again how students who went to summer school came back in the fall with lackluster reviews of their experience. They told him they never wanted to go to class, and the teachers did not seem to want to be there. Conti realized existing summer classes were not the most effective way to give students a second try at something they failed before.

“The main purpose was to get the kids through,” said Conti about his impression of traditional summer school. “Kids who were already struggling were coming back to school with another negative educational experience.”

So Conti, along with other principals of empowerment schools — in which principals take on greater responsibility for achievement than other New York City schools — applied for and received funding to create new summer programs. The radio course came about as a collaboration between teachers in the New Design High School, the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) and an arts-education organization called Working Playground. In addition to the radio course, students were offered courses on skyscrapers, hip-hop, and the science and history of Central Park.

“We want to give them an experience where they can be successful,” Conti said. “And give them something more life-like.”

While the teachers could not say for certain right after the presentation exactly how many students will pass, their projections were optimistic.

“I think everyone did very well,” said Mike Richman, an English teacher at New Design.

Students said they preferred the radio course to traditional summer school. And many were pleasantly surprised to learn that radio could be exciting even in an age of ubiquitous visual media.

“It was better than I thought it was,” said Greg Harris, 17, who worked on a documentary on the reactions to gentrification on the L.E.S. He and two other students came up with the topic themselves after observing the changes in the neighborhood around their school, which occupies the former Seward Park High School building.

Greg wants to produce more radio on one condition. “If it can be as fun as this.”

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