what's cooking?

At a Rikers Island school, inmates turn into "cheftestants"

Vivian TK, 38, makes spicy chicken pastelitos in a Riker's Island training kitchen today.
A student makes spicy chicken pastelitos in a training kitchen at Island Academy, a high school for incarcerated students on Rikers Island.

A clock ticked down, and two teams of women in chef’s jackets scurried around a kitchen, rolling pastry dough and sauteing fish. Corn chowder simmered on a stove and buttermilk biscuits baked in the oven. When the clock hit zero, the anxious cooks presented their creations to accomplished visiting chefs, who tallied their judgments of the meals’ creativity and flavor.

But many of today’s “cheftestants” may have to wait a while to fulfill their culinary dreams — for now, they are incarcerated students at the city’s Island Academy school at Riker’s Island correctional facility. This cooking contest was part of one of their classes, and the chief celebrity judge was Alain Sailhac, the former dean of the French Culinary Institute.

The city runs two schools on Riker’s Island. The Island Academy enrolls mainly students between the ages of 16 and 18, while the other school, Horizon Academy, serves slightly older students. Both schools operate in several locations throughout the detention facilities on the island, with sites for male students awaiting sentencing, a second for men who have already been sentenced and a third for all of the female students.

At Island Academy, all of the teenage students are required to take the culinary arts class, along with English, math and science courses. Adult inmates can also choose to take courses at the school.

The school has offered the cooking program for more than a decade, but today was the first time it became a contest. Of the roughly 50 female students enrolled in the program, two teams of six students each made it to the final round today. It came down to a battle of the ages — an team of teenage students matched up against a team of adults.

Mark Sauerhoff, a chef who launched the school’s culinary arts program and who now teaches the adolescent classes, said that the class allows the students to temporarily step away from the reality of their confinement.

“When they enter my room, Rikers stays out,” Sauerhoff said. “They enter ‘Sauerhoff-land.’ All the beefs, all the issues stay outside.”

“When they come in my room, they are culinary students,” he added. “Period.”

Culinary arts is particularly well-matched to the Rikers Island programs, Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro said. Of the 100,000 people who pass through Rikers Island each year, 85 percent are released instead of being transferred to state correctional facilities. The cooking program provides a “forward-looking approach” to inmates’ education, Schriro said, giving instruction that students can jump into mid-stream and that gives them skills they can use when they leave.

One of the teen students, Ricka, 18, said that Sauerhoff has been helping her research Manhattan culinary schools and training programs to apply to when she is released. She anticipates being released soon, after having been at Rikers since November on arson charges. In the kitchen, Ricka said, she found a team spirit and resilience that has been missing elsewhere in her life in the detention center.

“You know what [Sauerhoff] taught me? That when you cook and you mess up, you can always fix it,” she said. “That’s the point of cooking.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.