Chicago Charity Distributes Free School Supplies to Low-Income Families

School supplies (notebooks, colored pencils, a pair of scissors, a pencil sharpener, etc.).

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For some families, sending their young children back to school is a daunting prospect. But it’s not the classes or the hours that’s burdensome; it’s the growing list of school supplies that they must purchase.

Sent out in advance or brought home on the first day, the list of required schools supplies seems a lot longer than it was “back in the day.” And it’s not just pencils and notebooks anymore. It’s flashcards and a specific brand of printer paper. It’s calculators at younger and younger ages. It’s classroom supplies like Kleenex and hand sanitizer that schools can’t afford to supply.

In Chicago, approximately 80% of students enrolled in public schools are low-income, according to the Kids Count Data Center. Fortunately, charities like Back 2 School Illinois are helping to ease the financial strain. On Wednesday, August 9th, Back 2 School Illinois distributed nearly 14,000 free school supply kits to low-income students.

The Wednesday event, which happened at Broadway Armory Park, brought in over 400 students ages 6 to 12 for four hours of educational activities along with the giveaway. Chicago Public Schools’ start date is still nearly a month away (September 6th) but the activities were meant to prime the pump, getting school children excited to be back in the classroom. Also, they were planned far enough in advance that parents would not have already gone supply shopping.

The supply kits came packaged for four different age levels, based on consultation with area teachers. Kits for the youngest grades included crayons, markers, and construction paper. Kits for middle schoolers include math tools, binders, and college-ruled notebooks.

After the event, volunteers delivered thousands of kits to YMCA locations around Chicago, where parents can pick them up any time before September. Back 2 School Illinois hopes to deliver as many as 35,000 by the early months of the school year.

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Providing Education for Refugees in Lebanon

A crowd of refugees. A young girl around the age of six holds a sign that reads, "SOS."

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Lebanon is a small country in the tense area between Palestine and Syria. It’s about twice the size of Long Island, NY, and one of the smallest non-island countries in the world.

It’s also host to over one million registered refugees from Syria, according to a 2016 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They assume this to be low of the actual number, due to constant arrivals, a slow registration process, and an overwhelmed infrastructure. Their estimate of the actual number is closer to a million and a half. That would mean that more than one in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. And many of them are children.

Being a refugee is intensely disruptive to the life of a child. Many children that flee their home country never enter education again. Right now, over 200,000 Syrian children in Lebanon aren’t enrolled in school.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice, founded in 2016 by Amal and George Clooney, has partnered with international aid giant UNICEF to work on this issue. The foundation is donating $2.25 million dollars to seven public schools in Lebanon.

There’s already a system in Lebanon for providing education to refugees; schools operate in shifts, teaching local students in the morning, then refugees in the afternoons, doubling their capacity. The Clooney’s grant, boosted by a further $1 million from HP for educational technology, will add those seven schools to the pool that can extend their resources.

“Thousands of young Syrian refugees are at risk—the risk of never being a productive part of society,” the Clooneys said in press release on Monday, July 31st. “Formal education can help change that. That’s our goal with this initiative. We don’t want to lose an entire generation because they had the bad luck of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Ted Mitchell Appointed New Head of ACE, Concerns Arise

A photo of a chalkboard with school supplies on the table.

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The American Council on Education (ACE) has announced its next leader will be Ted Mitchell.

Previously a top higher education official under the Obama administration’s Education Department, Mitchell will replace Molly Brand, the ACE’s first female leader, who is retiring after nine years in the position.

While some favor Mitchell’s appointment, others point out that he has a much more varied background than previous ACE leaders, who were generally high-powered college presidents. Mitchell’s resume, on the other hand, includes being president of Occidental College; a history professor; an administrator at the University of California, Los Angeles; and the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit known for its ties to the charter school movement.

That last position, as well as Mitchell’s support of for-profit colleges, has caused some disquiet amongst other educators. In addition, Mitchell was unsuccessful in implementing a White House program to create a federal ratings system for colleges tied to financial aid.

Still, he has a history of advocating for innovation in higher education, including encouraging the development of more options for students seeking financial aid. He’s said he wants to work against the current “narrative that college doesn’t matter anymore for individuals and society,” in part by supporting university research as a vital part of the community.

He also aims to advocate for making higher education more accessible for a broader range of students, particularly those who avoid it because they can’t afford to take on massive student debt.

As part of the Obama administration legacy, Mitchell is coming into power at a difficult time, with the House and Senate controlled by Republicans. Some question whether or not he’ll be able to get anything done even as head of one of the biggest education lobbying groups in the country.

Mitchell himself, however, has faith, noting that his priority has always been policy, not politics. “I’m not and never pretended to be a politician,” he said. “I’ve had good working relationships on both sides of the aisle.”

Mitchell will begin his new role starting September 1.

Taking the MFA to the Next Level

A young, female college student painting in a studio.

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Art school isn’t just about traditional visual art anymore. Increasingly, MFA programs and the resulting art pieces include multidisciplinary fields of study, whether it’s combining different artistic mediums into one piece or taking student design out into the community to make a difference.

Several prime examples come from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), whose students recently exhibited their work on a three-part show divided into visual studies, print media, and collaborative design. In fact, most of the pieces featured mixed media. Angélica Maria Millán Lazon’s Engendradxs is made up of portraits of the artist’s aunt and grandmother, as well as smartphones mounted on the wall playing videos. Meanwhile, Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Fissures of the In-Between features triptychs, textiles, and movement through the physical space of the exhibit.

On the other side of the country, the School of Visual Arts in New York is ground zero for innovative productions like Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s 121212. The piece uses video, performance, and installation to tell the story of a day in the life of Lynnese Page, focusing on her daily rituals.

But it’s not just a matter of mixed media. MFA programs themselves are expanding to include the broader study of how art impacts the community around it. PNCA’s MFA in Collaborative Design focuses on getting students out into the world to collaborate with businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations looking for design solutions.

Back at SVA, students can choose from both a traditional MFA in Fine Arts and an MFA in Art Practice, which its chairman, David Ross, describes as being for “artists working in more hybrid areas, incorporating a number of different media or selecting the particular medium based on what they are trying to accomplish at a given time.”

Even MIT, traditionally known more for tech than for art, is jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to this kind of innovation. Its Master of Science in Visual Studies program focuses on “the development of artistic practices that challenge traditional genres as well as the limits of the gallery/museum context.”

Other schools with offerings focusing on art and design in the community include the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art.

While studio art will always have its place, MFA programs are increasingly going beyond tradition to offer programs that contextualize art within the communities that need it. From mixed media productions to programs focusing on community engagement, it’s a brave new world when it comes to arts education.

Afghan Girls Robotics Team Denied Entry into U.S.

A red stamp of the word "denied."

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The FIRST Global Challenge is a landmark event for budding young engineers worldwide. Held in Washington D.C., this new international robotics challenge invites teams from more than 150 nations to compete. All of the high-school-aged competitors will get the chance to bounce ideas off their peers from around the globe, building bridges in science that will strengthen their future careers. The competition encourages students to explore robotic applications for medicine, environmental stewardship, and energy efficiency.

At least, that’s the intention of FIRST Global, the nonprofit STEM charity organizing the competition. But there’s red tape in the way that some competitors struggle with.

An Afghan girls team aiming for the competition thought they’d accomplished the hard part when they raised nearly $200 each for their visa applications, and thousands more for their travel and stay expenses. But when they traveled to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the entire team was turned down for their travel visas. They weren’t given a reason.

Neither was a Gambian team that was also denied a few days later. Both teams were offered the chance to participate via Skype, but that could hardly hold a candle to the benefits of going in person.

Neither Afghanistan or Gambia are on the U.S. President’s contested travel ban, for the record. Visas were granted to teams from at least three nations which are: Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

With only days to go before the competition, the Gambian team was awarded last-minute visas after press coverage of their denial went viral on Twitter and Facebook. But their faculty adviser, science ministry director Mucktarr Darboe, will not be allowed to attend. He says he was denied because the U.S. is not currently granting visas to Gambian government officials. No such policy has been confirmed by a U.S. embassy.

The FIRST Global Challenge will take place from July 16-18. The Afghan girls team will still have to attend remotely.

Spaceport America Cup

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.
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The 2017 Spaceport America Cup is the first of its name, picking up the grail after the end of ESRA’s International Rocket Engineering Competition. But its sponsor and namesake, the New Mexico launch site for private space companies, hope to see it grow a reputation of its own for nurturing a new generation of aeronautical innovators.

The competitors in this competition are all students from colleges across the country, 110 teams in all. The winners overall were a team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their rocket, which used a liquid rocket propulsion system, traveled over 9km above the Earth’s surface.

Another rocket, built by a team of student interns at United Launch Alliance, fired off the largest sport rocket on record, 16m tall and over 1,000 pounds. This one served another purpose: carrying 16 packets of mementos and cards from students K-12, it was meant to inspire those students into STEM paths of their own.

The turnout this year was a massive increase over the attendance at the last ESRA event, which garnered 40 teams in 2016, and had outgrown its venue. The much larger facilities of Spaceport America will allow the new competition to continue growing, giving more and more engineering students the impetus to look to the stars.

Participants in the ESRA competition have gone on to employment in Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA, and NASA, proving that the competition moves lives forward. It’s certain that technology made by some of these past students is in space today, either on the ISS or in orbit in some other way.

21 different awards went out for various achievements in all kinds of flight and design, backed by many of those same companies and also Virgin Galactic, which owns a controlling interest in Spaceport America. It was held over the weekend of June 24th, 2017.

81-Year-Old Man Working Towards Earning His High School Diploma

A photo of a high school diploma with a graduation cap laying on top of it.

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Abdel-Qader Abu Ajameyah is 81-years-old, a Palestinian retiree with fourteen children and thirty-six grandchildren. At an age when most men begin to rest on their laurels, he is hard at work—at a school desk.

For five hours a day, Abu Ajameyah works towards earning his high school diploma, wearing a suit and tie to his studies every day.

In 1948, he was a student in a village near Ramla, which was at that time in Palestine. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out with the creation of Israel in that year, his family fled to become refugees in the West Bank, and  Abu Ajameyah soon went to work to help his family. For the next fifty years, he sold food and made a good life for his kin.

Today, with grandchildren reaching adulthood and great-grandchildren on the way, he says his goal is to be “on par” with those descendants.

“I want to set an example to generations—never stop learning,” says Abu Ajameyah.

A room has been set aside for him in a local schoolhouse, and an aid helps him by taking dictation, since a recent stroke has made writing difficult for the octogenarian. He took Israel’s national test for the first time last year, but failed to pass. He’s determined this year. There’s a family party on the line. The next exam will be in July.

He has hearty family support. His sons and wife are all working to make sure he can devote himself to his studies.

“We all encourage him and we are all very proud of him,” said Zakaria, one of Abu Ajameyah’s sons.

Abu Ajameyah also has community support—it’s a matter of pride. The illiteracy rate among Palestinian adults is less than 4%, one of the lowest rates in any Arab nation. Stats for Palestinians living in Israeli territory are less clear-cut.