Moving America Forward

How a Viral Photo Is Giving Students a Chance at a Much-Needed Scholarship

March 10, 2014
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How a Viral Photo Is Giving Students a Chance at a Much-Needed Scholarship
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The power of social media works to get NYC students the education they deserve.

Maybe someone’s always hitting you up to play Words With Friends via Facebook. Or perhaps you’re tired of seeing your neighbor post pictures of these elaborate meals she cooks on Instagram. Regardless of the annoyance, we all complain about social media from time to time. But despite the irritation factor, there’s no denying it holds incredible power.

Just ask Annette Renaud.

Last week, Renaud was riding the C train in New York City when she was approached by Brandon Stanton, the creator of the moving and incredibly popular photography series Humans of New York. Stanton, as is his usual practice, requested to take Renaud’s picture and then asked his usual prompt, “What’s on your mind?” Little did he know that her answer would ignite a firestorm.

The visibly upset Renaud told Stanton about a problem she was dealing with at her child’s high school, the Secondary School for Journalism in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “I’m currently advocating on behalf of my child and 17 other children whose parents don’t speak English,” she said. “These kids have all done very well on their Regent’s exams — I’m talking 90/95th percentile. Very smart kids. They were on their way toward qualifying for an Advanced Regents government scholarship that would give their parents badly needed money to help in their education.”

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Renaud, who is on the School Leadership Team, went on to tell Stanton that the scholarship — like many others — requires three years of foreign language classes in order for students to be considered. Last year, the high school’s principal, Jodi Radwell, released the Spanish teacher, Briana Harris, due to budget constraints and didn’t replace her, leaving the seniors who were vying for the scholarship without options. Renaud, along with some other concerned parents, reached out to the Board of Education and were told to put their complaint in writing. They did, but a year has passed and there still isn’t a replacement Spanish teacher.

“We’ve got a new mayor and a new chancellor. So we aren’t blaming them,” Renaud continued. “But they need to know how impossible they’ve made it to help our kids. Trying to get something fixed in these schools is like praying to some false God. You call and email hoping that God is listening, and nothing happens.”

As it turns out, however, the Internet was listening.

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Stanton published Renaud’s story on his Facebook page — which boasts almost 3.6 million likes — on March 2, and it immediately went viral. Within just a couple of days, the photo had been shared shared almost 17,000 times and had received more than 5,600 comments. Many commenters offered to teach Spanish at the school for free. Others posted the school’s email address and phone numbers for people to contact the principal directly. Since the post went up, two Change.org petitions have been started to request that the school hire a new Spanish teacher. The students, meanwhile, are still protesting. While officials at the Education Department told the New York Times that the students received access to online language courses to make up for in-class instruction, the students said the course wasn’t provided until January and is not registered on their transcripts.

Now, education officials say they are meeting with the school to make sure the students have what they need. “We just want a fair chance,” Alejandra Figueroa, a senior at the school, told the Times. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” And thanks to Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York and the World Wide Web, they’re that much closer to getting it.

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