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Reshaping Remote Learning for New York Students
An Interview with Kellen Zeng, Organizer for the NYCLU’s Teen Activist Project

The NYCLU’s Teen Activist Project is an Education Policy Center initiative that engages students at New York City public schools to become peer educators and organizers on issues most relevant to young people—including comprehensive sex education, school integration, student privacy, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Students receive issue and skills trainings while learning about legislative advocacy and strategic planning as they start their journey as the next generation of activists. In the more than 20 years since its launch, the TAP program has become a model for other organizations looking to harness the passion and power of youth advocates determined to have an impact.

Staten Island Technical High School senior Kellen Zeng joined TAP in 2019 as a way to get hands-on experience with a variety of issues, work on her public speaking skills, and network with other likeminded youth organizers. The 17-year-old Brooklyn native spent much of 2020 trying to navigate the challenges of remote learning, which has had a negative impact on many New York students, especially those in underfunded districts.

We spoke with Kellen about how New York City could better support students and why activism is important to her. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

NYCLU: What’s been your experience of remote learning?

Kellen Zeng: My experience is better than most students’ in New York City, especially those without technology, devices, tablets, and wifi, and students who aren’t having their Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) met. I attend a specialized high school and have access to technology—I have my iPad, I have stable wifi, the basic needs one needs to access remote learning.

Even with these things, it’s obviously still really hard. Even before the pandemic there was an unbelievably high amount of pressure put on students to perform well. Now during the pandemic, we still have that expectation placed on us but without any consideration of the circumstances. My academic performance has taken a dip. There’s not as much face time with teachers, there’s a lack of connection between me and the person who’s supposed to be teaching me. They don’t even know who I am. All they can see is whether or not I’ve submitted an assignment. And I don’t have the opportunity to explain myself or my circumstances unless I go out of my way to leave a comment on Google classroom or email, the only form of interaction that is available. It feels like students needs aren’t being met during this time.

Are schools being especially strict about attendance and keeping cameras on? And are you seeing racial bias in disciplinary issues?

KZ: Yes. Something I’ve noticed across the city through the succession of schools I’ve gone to is how uneven disciplinary action is. In both my middle school and my high school, a lot of students walk around knowing they could get away with anything because these schools want to keep their graduation rates high. A student could be threatened with suspension but never actually be suspended, or if they are it’s an in-school suspension that lasts a couple days.

In many other schools in New York City that are disproportionally policed, they have metal detectors, they have little-to-no guidance counselors, they have a lack of resources and funding. The students in those schools, instead of being sent to their guidance counselors they’re automatically given a suspension, and they don’t receive the educational materials they need.

And now, students who don’t have their cameras on or aren’t submitting their work on time are being kicked out of their Zoom classes. There’s no precedent that has been set. That’s largely because remote learning has been something that the city has put on the back burner, like a side thought, because their priority is getting back to in-person.

Do you or your classmates have privacy concerns?

KZ: I guess there has been some level of privacy concerns. Whether or not you turn on your camera will determine your engagement grade. About 20 percent of my grade is based off what they call Habits of Success. If you don’t turn on your camera, a teacher automatically assumes you’re not present, you’re not engaged. In other schools, it’s a requirement. The NYCLU has been adamant about allowing students to not have their cameras on during class, because they may be at home and not want to show their living situation.

What could the city do to improve remote learning?

KZ: They have to prioritize it. We’ve been learning remotely since March. They had the whole summer to get all the students without tablets, devices, and wifi the technology they need for their classes. But there are still students who don’t have that. They could have spent the whole summer coming up with a plan for students with IEPs, and now we’re back in school again and students with IEPs are still not having their needs met. The city spent a lot of time planning what in-person is going to look like when there are students struggling right now with remote learning. Going back to school may not happen for a while. All we can do is focus on right now.

What drives you to be an activist? And what issues are you most passionate about?

KZ: I come from a place of privilege, so what drives my activism is making sure that I use my platform and networks to spread awareness about the issues and amplify the voices of those who are most affected.

One of the big things is school integration. New York City has created an environment in which students are pitted against each other. Where students in specialized high schools who come from places of privilege think that students in other schools are “not as smart” or “not as deserving,” when the reality is that they haven’t had access to the resources the city should have been providing them.

Other issues that I’m passionate about are the school-to-prison pipeline, school integration, comprehensive sex education, biometric surveillance technology, and environmental justice.

What’s been especially inspiring to you this past year?

KZ: There’s a lot you can say about 2020. Seeing all the protests and marches, watching the advocacy really have an impact on how the elections turned out, voting numbers are higher than ever—all of these things are super inspiring. On a smaller scale, some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met have been through TAP. TAP has done a really good job of taking in students like me who had zero-to-no experience and turning them into young people who have such endless possibilities and potential to do so many great things. TAP really gave us the resources and the guidance. It’s super inspiring to see the seniors before me graduate and go on to do great things. Just taking a look at the people around me is enough to be inspired by.

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Kellen Zeng