For Legacy High School Students, a Lesson in Activism Hits Home

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On a warm afternoon last week, Keyla Marte stood on a plastic step stool and addressed a herd of students, parents, teachers, TV cameras, photographers, curiosity-seekers and police officers in Union Square Park.

She called the crowd of roughly 200 people to order, made a short speech, then yelled, “Ain't no power like the power of the youth, cause the power of the youth don't stop!" The crowd enthusiastically carried the chant.

Keyla, a 17-year-old senior at the Legacy School for Integrated Studies in Manhattan, helped organize the rally on Feb. 1 to protest the Department of Education’s proposal to phase out Legacy, a 350-student 9-12 school that officials have deemed a failure.

The vote on the closing by the Panel for Educational Policy will take place on Thursday evening at Brooklyn Technical High School, and the panel is expected to approve the Education Department recommendations to phase out 19 schools -- including Legacy -- and remove the middle-school grades from six others.

The message that Keyla and other students rallied around has been echoed throughout the city over the past month at hearings at the 25 affected schools. But Legacy was unusual in the level of student organization brought to the cause, as well as in the use of social media.

The students' use of Twitter and Facebook, among other social media means, is evidence that high school students are learning from the social movements all over the world that have relied on the Internet to build support.

But while the Legacy students brought the passion, the organizational skills were seeded by a coach for an after-school program.

The coach, John-Michael Parker, 23, is the executive director of New York City’s chapter of the Future Project, a nonprofit after-school program. He pairs coaches with students in two city schools in Manhattan, Legacy and Richard R. Green High School of Teaching.

A 2010 graduate of Yale with floppy brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses, Mr. Parker runs the program to encourage students to complete improvement projects in the community or school or at home, aiming to provide them with inspiration and education.

“We want to create a service movement that includes young people like me giving back,” Mr. Parker said. “We take students through ideas, brainstorm and set up meetings to talk with knowledgeable people to get them in action.”

The Future Project works with 40 students at Legacy, and coaches have helped students develop projects including a newspaper, a dance team and a youth photo contest.

Keyla has been meeting with Mr. Parker once a week after school. Her initial project was starting a girls’ support club for her school, but the plan to close Legacy refocused her intentions. With her coach, she planned her approach, and a few weeks ago, Keyla and seven other students formed a committee to organize their fight for the school.

The efforts have yielded -- and included -- high visibility. Keyla was interviewed by NY1 and WPIX. She led protesters to the outdoor set of the "Today" show, where two who were holding up signs were interviewed on air by Al Roker.

The students also developed a Save Legacy social media presence, including on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages.

They organized a phone drive to lobby city and state officials, then chronicled the responses they received in their Twitter feed.

And on Twitter, they employed hash tags like #mayor13 and #studentpower to attract attention to their cause.

The Save Legacy team members also created a Web site with a blog, where they aggregate their social media posts and embedded an edited video of their organizing efforts.

Their largest event was the Feb. 1 rally, where students walked out of school to nearby Union Square.

On Facebook, Keyla and her team created a "Walk It Out" page to spread the word. They used the opportunity to dispense advice like the importance of bringing prepared posters; provided talking points with statistics; appointed local leaders at other schools; and provided guidelines for keeping the walk-out orderly.

Legacy was one of 29 schools chosen to be restructured in 2010. The Education Department then installed a new principal, Joan Mosely, to help turn it around, but the school earned another F on a progress report last year. The average attendance rate is 77 percent, far below the city's rate of 86 percent for high schools last year.

Keyla acknowledged the school's poor performance, but said she believed that Ms. Mosely just needed more time.

“The principal made a huge difference,” said Keyla, who lives in East Harlem. “She started transforming the school from within.”

That sentiment was prevalent at the heated closing hearing at Legacy on Feb. 1, as more than 200 students, parents and teachers applauded and cheered loudly in support of the new principal.

“How did the D.O.E. evaluate Ms. Mosely’s capacity to create change in the school?” asked Harry Rivas, a ninth-grade member of Save Legacy. “Does the D.O.E. regularly just give one year to principals to create change?”

Ms. Mosely, who sat quietly at the side of the room, said in an interview that while she understood the department’s desire to close poorly performing schools, she inherited a school that would take time to fix.

“Every kid deserves a quality education,” she said. “I wish I could have done it faster.”

Despite all the efforts to save it, Legacy seems likely to close. Out of 117 schools that the Education Department has recommended for phasing out since 2003, shortly after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took over control of the schools, the Panel for Education Policy has spared only one.

Mr. Parker said that whatever the outcome, he believed that Keyla and the other students involved in the Save Legacy campaign had participated in a valuable civics lesson.

April Pichardo, 16, a junior at Legacy and a member of the committee, said that learning about history took on new urgency.

“We researched past protests like Vietnam and Gandhi, looking for a different idea to stand out,” April said. “We learned that we need to stand together and make alliances.”

Mr. Parker said the students were successful in their efforts.

“If there’s cameras and people writing about the story, they've accomplished their goal,” he said. “Keyla will walk away understanding what it takes to make it happen.”

Keyla agreed. As the erstwhile activist and the coach walked together from the rally to prepare for the closing hearing that evening, she realized she had forgotten to provide water for people at the rally.

“I’m learning,” she said.