Promise and relief inside a new charter school on its first day

The city’s school year doesn’t officially begin for another two and a half weeks, but some students started classes today at a handful of charter schools with extended school years.

I visited one of those schools today, watching kindergarten and first-graders file into the brand-new Teaching Firms of America Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

When I arrived at 7:30 a.m., 15 minutes before the school officially opened its doors, already more than a dozen parents, with their children clung closely to their sides, had gathered by the main entrance of PS 308, where Teaching Firms of America is housed.

“I applied, but didn’t think I’d win,” said Damaris Rivera, a parent who won the lottery for admission into TFOA last spring. “I was excited, I was screaming. I couldn’t believe it.”

Rivera’s daughter was one of 100 students who filed through freshly painted halls to arrive at classrooms named after themes in African and African-American history, such as “Freedom” and “Umoja” (Swahili for “unity”). Inside, teachers worked to establish discipline guided by “choice theory.”

“It’s about students understanding that everything decision they make is a choice,” said Alisa Nutakor, the school’s dean.  Within a couple of hours, each classroom had at least one or two students who made a choice that prompted a time out from the class.

The school’s founder, Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, II told me that he was just relieved that the first day had come. Just four weeks ago, the school hadn’t begun to prepare its space because all charter school co-locations were in limbo while the city waited for a judge to rule on a UFT lawsuit to halt the space-sharing arrangements. Now his vision of replicating the lean structure of corporate law firms in an education setting was becoming a reality.

“This is why we did the work,” said Kalam Id-Din, II. “This is what it’s all about.”

The school’s culture, Kalam Id-Din II said, was designed to reflect the Bedford-Stuyvesant community and its rich African American heritage. Staff greet each other with the honorific “Brother” and “Sister” before their first names. And the Swahili phrase, “Habari Gani” – which translates to “What’s the good word?” — was repeated often in the opening hours.

Part of the “firm” structure, Kalam Id-Din II explained, is that nearly every staff member will play an instructional role. That includes Kalam Id-Din II himself. He excused himself from our conversation to duck into his first-grade classroom. “Good morning, little brothers and little sisters!” he greeted his students.