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Norma Kamali

Norma Kamali

Posted: November 9, 2010 02:04 PM

Not every student must go to college, but instead they should learn a trade and graduate from high school. The drop-out rate amongst public school students is unacceptable especially if the USA expects to have a competitive work force.

"Norma, we would like to give you an award as a successful public school graduate and we would like to have it presented at your high school, Washington Irving," announced the telephone caller some 15 plus years ago. All I could think of was the last time I walked past Washington Irving, I was horrified by the graffiti and pure chaos surrounding the school. Yikes -- this definitely looks like more than an award.

Let me start by saying when I went to Washington Irving in the early 60s, it was all girls and not really that safe either. Back then, students from all boroughs traveled the subways to get to Irving. I was in the 5 percent white minority.

I chose this school because I heard there was a really good art department within the school and the chances of getting a scholarship were greater than going to the High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the most desired art school in midtown Manhattan.

Those of us in the art classes would call Irving, "Survival of the Fittest" High. I was always challenged in the lunchroom for seats, as we all were, and the art students were especially targeted, particularly when we carried our large portfolios. The solution was that we would stay in our classroom and sketch during lunch.

It was all worthwhile because in fact, I did win scholarships and grants for my artwork and all of it came from companies like C and C, Cola and other community-based businesses helping to support public school students.

So yes, I did accept the award presented to me at Washington Irving. Then I was told the real reason I was getting the award. It was with the hope I would see what was going on and I would decide to be a part of the effort to try and turnaround was what happening in the school and the neighborhood. The local residents were present and upset, and there were local business people discussing the empty stores and closed businesses because of the school... how could I walk away from this?

I offered to go to the art house and I spoke to the students in my homeroom class, which had not changed at all except for the fact that there was more gum under the desks and names carved into the wood. I realized right away that they were not going to give me their full attention. While makeup was being applied and assorted giggling and chatter scattered across the room, I stopped and asked if anybody had questions. One hand raised with, "What was in it for you to come here?"

I told them my story. As a public school student, it was clear I was not from the privileged class. When community people came in from the outside and listened to the direction of dedicated teachers who sponsored my talent, I was given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. I let them know that I really wanted to do the same for them.

I had to prove myself to the students in the art house. Since then, I have had the most wonderful relationship with the students and the public schools.

What I learned was how easy and natural it is to bring my expertise to the school. One good example is that over a summer, I transformed my homeroom class into a fashion design classroom. I shared my experience with the class. I began to provide awards and mentoring, as well as internships, for the students as well as the teachers. Any time I have extra fabric, trims, or sewing machines, they go straight to the school. I introduce other friends with influence or skills to share with the students. I worked with the principal sharing information to help empower her to use the community as an asset for the school. She now has 40 partners and is a master at creating an atmosphere for open participation for the community. Washington Irving now has a spin-off called Gramercy Arts High School that houses the art house and is one of the desired high schools for the arts in New York City. I have been one small part of the success and there is always more to do.

"Pencil" is an organization that uses the popular Principal for a Day events to initiate the community school partnerships. Fifteen years ago, I became a member and with the support of Pencil, I was able to network even beyond my reach for my school. I was asked by Pencil to visit other schools and connect with the principals, students, teachers and parents to see what I could do to help. The experience has been life-changing and it is MY life that has been changed.

The call-to-action is quite clear. Share your skills, staff, company and resources, and talent with the public schools. Contact Pencil and have them match you with a school that is a perfect fit for you.

You can help a public school student graduate, so do it now!

 

Follow Norma Kamali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nkcollection