Fourth Graders Write Essays To Raise Awareness Of 2020 Census

A student from P.S.257 made this poster to encourage people to fill out the census. (Photo via HITN)

BROOKLYN – To encourage residents to fill out the 2020 census and to raise awareness of the need for children to be counted, HITN, a non-profit organization, launched the ¡Tú Cuentas! 2020 Census Essay Writing Contest for fourth-grade students.

More than 300 students from 15 elementary schools in hard-to-count areas across the city participated in the contest, including three from Brooklyn – P.S.257, P.S.380, and P.S.84, all in Williamsburg. Students were asked to write essays or short stories on the importance of being counted and how it will impact them and their communities. Now, there are 15 finalists (one from each school). You can read their essays and vote for your favorite one here. The winner will receive the title of HITN NYC Student Census Ambassador with a certificate. Originally, they were going to be celebrated with an event by local officials, teachers, and other finalists, but, because of COVID-19, those plans were scrapped for the safety of everyone.

According to the latest numbers at the U.S. Census Bureau, the self-response rate from households in Brooklyn is just 50.6%, lagging behind the Bronx (54.7%), and Queens (53.5%). Brooklyn was undercounted in the 2010 census, and it is in danger of being undercounted again. It’s crucial that NYC gets all the federal money it can, in order to help with post coronavirus recovery. U.S. Census data is used to decide how federal funding gets split up and how many House seats Brooklyn will get. The fewer people respond the more likely Brooklyn is to get short-changed in the future, and the more difficult recovery from the effects of the pandemic will be, we reported back in April. 

In Congressional District 7 — which includes parts of Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Bushwick, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Dumbo, East New York, East Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Gowanus, Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Williamsburg– the current self-response rate from households is 51%. In Congressional District 8– which includes parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Canarsie, East New York, Ocean Hill, Spring Creek, East Flatbush, Bergen Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Marine Park, Mill Basin, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Brighton Beach, and Coney Island– the rate is just 49.5%. And in Congressional District 9– which includes Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Prospect Park– the rate is 53.4%.

A teacher from P.S.380 encouraging students in the essay contest. (Photo via HITN)

For Naomi Rivera, the Executive Director at Government Affairs of HITN, the contest was a step in the right direction. She said she is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in the Bronx, therefore she knows “first-hand the impact of living in underserved communities.”

“As a mother and grandmother, I know that fourth graders play a critical role in our communities. Fourth graders who are eight to nine years old still rely on their parents to help them understand issues, and parents also rely on their children to bring home critical information,” Rivera told Bklyner.

She explained that HITN serves mostly the Latino community, which is “hard to count.” And that is what made them launch this contest.

“With that understanding, we felt compelled to help all families realize the importance of Census participation and the consequences of not being counted as it relates to local programs and services in their communities that directly affect their children and families,” she said. “This initiative helps families understand the civic responsibility we all have, and the opportunity to be part of a collective voice.”

But why ask elementary school children to be the ones to raise awareness? Rivera believes the youth has the power to help and empower their families.

“We have seen that it’s our youth the ones who help parents navigate information from technology to translation in hard-to-count communities,” Rivera said. “The schools are a direct link to social services that some families rely on. In many cases, there are language barriers, and oftentimes parents may feel intimidated to engage themselves, so they rely on their children to provide and bring home information.”

At a virtual event to celebrate the student participants earlier this week, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams congratulated the kids on a job well done.

“The most important relationship in sports is the relationship between the coach and the player. We are the coaches; your parents, your teachers, all of us who have already gone through public school. You’re now the new players,” he said. “We’re not in the field of the game anymore. We need you, and although we are trying our best to get as many people to participate in the census, when you write an essay or when you… tell your parents or your friends or your classmates, you are winning the game for us. And so as a coach, I am so proud of you… to participate in having New York reach who we’re supposed to reach.”

To celebrate the students, a virtual event took place, where teachers and Eric Adams congratulated the kids. (Photo from the virtual event.)

Nicole Sweeney is a 29-year-old fourth-grade teacher at P.S.257. When she heard about the essay contest, she knew she wanted her students to participate.

“It was important to have my students participate in this contest because of how imperative the census is to their education. Our students need to be educated so they can pass on the information to their family and friends. We need our students to be properly counted so our schools are adequately funded,” Sweeney said. “It is important for everyone to be recognized in the census so that our communities are properly funded. Our local communities will receive funding for health care, education, housing, roads, etc. We need to make sure our communities are receiving an adequate amount of money to support its population.”

Edwin Cuateta is a nine-year-old boy in the fourth grade at P.S.257. He participated in the contest (and is now a finalist) because it was required by his teacher during remote learning. But, as he learned more about the census, he realized exactly how important it actually was.

“When I wrote my essay, I made sure to have a strong hook to really grab my reader’s attention because if they weren’t interested right away, then they wouldn’t have wanted to read the rest,” he said. “I wrote about how people can complete the census in multiple different ways so people get to choose which way is easier for them to fill it out. I also wrote how simple it is to complete. All you have to do is write about how many people live in your house. I explained to my readers that this is only every 10 years so it’s not too much of a hassle to just get it done. Lastly, I wrote that our communities get money for doing the census.”

“I think the census is important so that we can get more money for our schools, hospital,” he continued, “to fix the roads and so much more to make our neighborhoods a better place to live.”

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Zainab Iqbal

Zainab is a staff reporter at Bklyner who sometimes writes poetry in her free time || zainab@bklyner.com

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