By the 751M PTA
Manhattan School for Career Development (751M), or MSCD, is a multi-site District 75 school that serves over 200 students throughout Manhattan. Its main site is its high school, or “Academy” program, located in the East Village. Its “Prep,” or middle school, which opened in September 2018 in the West Village, is co-located with MS 297, a District 2 middle school in the new 75 Morton Street school building. MSCD also supports inclusion programs at Harvey Milk High School, High School of Fashion Industries, and Hudson High School, as well as transition programs and off-sites at NYU, Baruch, Teachers College, Bellevue, and Mt. Sinai, among other locations.
With students ranging in ages from 11 to 21 years old, and with all of the students following individualized education plans (IEPs), it might seem hard to build a sense of community among students, as well as between students, their teachers, staff, and families. Yet, with the support and enthusiasm of MSCD’s principal, Ewa Asterita, the school regularly creates opportunities for parents, teachers, staff, and students to come together to celebrate community (through holiday events, workshops, parent participation in curriculum development, and regular meetings and activities like “Coffee with the Principal” or “Painting with the Principal”). With a recently formed PTA the school has placed a priority on building new and expanded opportunities for parent engagement, which is especially important for students attending District 75 schools like MSCD as students often come from different neighborhoods and districts to attend.
For many students at MSCD, school is where they find their community, where they build their friendships, and where they find the support they need to thrive personally and academically. Recently, the school’s core belief in the power of community and friendship as a foundation for learning was put into action when the Culinary Arts Program’s teachers Victoria Love and Jeremy Kaplan, with the support of the PTA and the principal, introduced the idea of “Holiday Go-Bags.” The idea behind the go-bags was to create an opportunity for parents, students, and staff to join together in serving the school community while building key skills that relate to the curriculum: nutrition, shopping, budgets, teamwork, and transportation, as well as providing opportunities to have discussions about food insecurity, volunteerism, and community service. Like all New York City’s public schools, at MSCD there are students who experience food insecurity; and the holidays, in particular, can be stressful without the routines and provisions that school affords. At the same time, knowing what it means to work together, share, and provide for friends and families is a lesson that exceeds the specific needs of any particular student. Thus, the Holiday Go-Bags were a way to bring everyone in the school together, to not distinguish among students but rather to teach that community is built through caring and cooperation. From start to finish, students were involved in every step of the process: shopping for groceries, bringing the food back to the school sites, distributing the food for the go-bags, and celebrating the distribution of the go-bags at the holiday parties before winter break. Although the process reinforced skills like counting, sorting, and organizing, the celebration at which the bags were distributed was all about friendship and community. One student reported, “The Holiday To-Go bags were awesome. It helped to make my mom feel better. It made me really feel the care and kindness in our school.” Another student added, “The Holiday To-Go bags at our holiday celebration made me really happy. I love our school because of all my friends and everything the school does for us.”
One of the school’s lead teachers, instructional coach Kaitlyn Stillwagon, summarized the importance of projects like this in building and showing community as something that may start in school but extends far beyond it—for each and every one of the students. She said, “This project, driven by our principal, Ewa Asterita, was inspired by our school’s belief that our school community does not just exist in our school buildings during school hours, but in each of the five boroughs where our students and families live 24/7. It was our school’s way of spending the holidays together in spirit while we were on break.”