A pivotal moment for a school and the program designed to improve it

This is the first story in a three-part series about Brooklyn Generation School and New York City’s new school-turnaround program. Click here to read the series and meet the students of BGS.

As Elodie Oriental saw it, the path from one of New York City’s weakest high schools to the Ivy League ran right through this moment, standing onstage facing the crowd at a citywide poetry competition.

That’s why the strong-willed 15-year-old had added memorizing 19th-century poetry to her grinding schedule of homework, family obligations, and as many free college-prep programs for low-income students as she could get into. For Elodie, it was all to ensure that she could eventually propel herself far from Canarsie, Brooklyn, where she lived, and on to better things: law school for her, medical school for her twin sister, Ismaelle.

To get there, the twins knew they faced a steeper climb than other similarly ambitious teenagers.

They were dealing with an upheaval at home: Their mother, who had immigrated from Haiti, died just before the start of the school year, leaving the girls to move in with their father, a busy taxi driver. And their small high school, Brooklyn Generation School, was by some measures among the city’s worst, though the girls and many classmates leaned on it more than ever.

Under the stage lights’ glow that night in February, Elodie looked out on her teenage competitors: girls from a Catholic school on Staten Island, a public performing-arts school in Manhattan, and a $21,000-per-year Jewish school on Long Island.

If Elodie knew that the odds were against her, she didn’t let on. She was used to telling everyone that she was going places. And if the twins made it to college and beyond, they would chart a course for their three-year-old sister; show the teachers at BGS, who entered them in competitions like these, that their investments had paid off; and honor the legacy of their greatest champion, their mother, whose picture Elodie wore on her shirt that evening.

But before Elodie could get there, she had a poetry-reciting contest to win. “Invictus,” William Ernest Henley’s ode to self-reliance, was her choice.

Elodie “is interested in attending Harvard or Columbia,” the event’s emcee told the crowd, reading from a biography she submitted. “After college and law school, she plans on becoming the best criminal prosecutor known to mankind.”

As her competitors looked on, Elodie stepped to the front of the stage. She straightened her back, clasped her hands, took a deep breath and began.

The poetry competition took place as Elodie’s high school stood on a precipice of its own. As part of New York City’s new “School Renewal” improvement program, it had just three years to change course or face restructuring or closure.

Mayor Bill de Blasio had promised to spark transformations at low-performing schools like BGS, not by closing them as his predecessor had, but by diagnosing what ails them and giving each what it needs to get better. In the view of de Blasio and many educators, schools need more support, not sanctions, as they grapple with the challenges that low-income students carry with them to school.

Still, de Blasio warned that schools that fail to rebound after getting such a boost from his $150 million Renewal program could be closed. In fact, BGS is the product of one of the scores of school closures under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Today, it is one of six small schools operating inside the husk of the old South Shore High School, which had a 32 percent graduation rate and fewer applicants than any other city high school when it was shuttered in 2006. Brooklyn Generation’s graduation rate was 50 percent last year, still 18 points below the city average.

A diamond-shaped oddity from 1970, the old South Shore building overlooks the Flatlands and Canarsie neighborhoods down the road from the last stop on the L train. The few BGS students who live outside the borough ride the 6 bus from the train, passing a C-Town supermarket that flies the flags of Jamaica, Guyana, and Haiti, a nod to the more than 35 percent of local residents who hail from the West Indies. To enter the school, students must pass through metal detectors installed two decades ago after a 15-year-old varsity football player was fatally stabbed in a South Shore stairwell.

To many staff members at BGS, where countless students arrive at school tired, troubled, and years behind academically, de Blasio’s ideas make a lot of sense. The twins, for example, have latched onto the school more as their family has contracted. A favorite math teacher is their “uncle,” while a college counselor who ushered them into enrichment programs at four different colleges is a “second mother.”

Principal Lydia Colón Bomani has always said students need more than good lessons — they also need life advice, college guidance, and the occasional granola bar, and she sees it as her duty to round up that extra support herself.

“Find resources and create opportunities for my team and my kids to thrive,” she said. “That’s my number one job.”

The Renewal program aims to be a sort of drug cocktail for low-performing schools, meant to treat two maladies simultaneously: subpar academics and especially needy students. In early February, both problems surfaced in Andrew Annunziata’s 10th-grade history class.

Only 11 of Annunziata’s roughly 20 students made it to class that morning. A few who did rested their heads on their desks.

Annunziata had spent part of that morning at the 10th-grade teachers’ weekly “kid talk” meeting, a BGS ritual where teachers discuss student problems with a school social worker. On that day, they focused on a 10th-grade boy who was about to turn 18 and often asked teachers for money. (Nearly a quarter of the school’s 80 or so sophomores are older than their peers and behind in class credits.) They also considered a girl who was battling arthritis and a truant boy whose foster mother wasn’t returning the school’s calls.

Those challenges follow Annunziata’s students into the classroom. Studies of children’s brain development have found that long-term exposure to poverty and violence can affect children’s attention, memory, and inhibition control — as C. Cybele Raver, a researcher and vice provost at New York University puts it, “Poverty gets under the skin.”

A key component of the Renewal program is the “community school” approach, which pours medical and social services into schools, and BGS had started that work before other Renewal schools through a grant. By February, the school had hired a coordinator who would soon help bring in new teaching-artists and mental-health counselors.

“You’re trying to build the entire support system that students need right in this one little hallway,” Annunziata said during the meeting.

 Data: NYC DOE, NY State Education Dept., Credit: Sarah Glen/ChalkbeatIt was less clear how the academic half of the Renewal program would play out. That morning, Annunziata was trying to explain the causes of World War I. A first-year BGS teacher who previously taught at a private middle school, he used several analogies meant to capture his students’ interest. He compared the shootings of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the rapper Notorious B.I.G., and the Allied and Central forces to the Giants and the Patriots. He also had the teenagers complete a fill-in-the-blank worksheet that didn’t require much writing or critical thinking, asking questions like “Germany wanted to build up her empire. This is known as ___.”

As Annunziata points out, most of his students are behind academically, with some reading at an elementary-school level. Still, the Renewal program has promised to help teachers catch up such students by offering educators new training and coaching.

In February, the BGS teachers hadn’t seen that. Instead, they were trying to improve their own practice while planning lessons, contacting families, and grading papers.

“There’s just not enough time in the day,” Annunziata said, “to get through everything.”

A few weeks later, as temperatures plunged to a record-breaking 2 degrees, Colón Bomani was preparing to be judged.

After Renewal officials canceled their first visit the previous week, she was expecting them to arrive some day soon to take stock of the school’s needs. In the meantime, a state-led team of evaluators was set to descend on the school for two full days the following week, when they would observe teachers, interview students, and examine classwork, course plans, and discipline records. After that, a city reviewer would rate the school’s leadership and teaching quality. The school would need to prepare differently for each visit.

But on this frostbitten February morning, Colón Bomani didn’t let on that she was anxious. Instead, she called her students “baby” and “darling” as she served them sausages, pancakes, waffles, and Styrofoam cups of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

“Hot cocoa here!” she told the bleary-eyed teenagers that morning.

The breakfast was a tradition rooted in the school’s early years when the city had struggled to accommodate the school’s unusual schedule, designed by the nonprofit Generation Schools Network, which lengthens the school year for students. When BGS opened in 2007, students couldn’t get meals on days when the rest of the city’s schools were closed, and staffers couldn’t input attendance data, either.

Other early problems went beyond the school’s structure. Some students took no science classes for a stretch when there was only one science teacher. Several staffers and former students said the school felt chaotic and the founding principal, Terri Grey, was often away from the building. Grey, who left in 2011, said many of the school’s early challenges were a result of its limited resources and untested model.

Colón Bomani agreed that her predecessor had faced a daunting task. But when she arrived, she said what she found “was nothing short of a disaster.”

Colón Bomani started at BGS in August 2011, on the first day of classes. She soon recruited the principal of her previous school, Louis Garcia, to join her at BGS, and together they overhauled the school’s schedule, tried to catch up students in credits, and formed teacher teams to encourage joint planning. Faculty say the current administration brought a sense of order and responsiveness, and parents said they felt more welcomed and confident their children were earning the credits they needed to.

Oral Johnson, a guidance counselor under both administrations, said Colón Bomani “brought a tremendous amount of structure. It feels like the school is being run more efficiently.”

Since then, attendance rates have climbed from 80 percent in 2012 to more than 90 percent this May. And the share of students who graduate within six years, 73 percent, matches the city average.

However, the school’s four-year graduation rate has actually slipped under Colón Bomani. Meanwhile, the three other comparable small high schools in the South Shore building, which serve students with similar levels of poverty and special-education needs, have graduation rates at or near the city’s 68 percent average.

Colón Bomani knew the school needed to raise its graduation rate, both to avoid censure and to improve the lives of its students. But she also wanted the evaluators to see the breakfasts and the poetry competitions, the counseling, the tutoring, and the college visits the small school had pulled together for its very needy students — “Band-Aids on bullet wounds,” as the school’s wellness director puts it. The principal knew that didn’t explain away the graduation rate, but surely it counted for something.

“How do we present all this,” she said that icy morning, “without it appearing like an excuse?”

Data: NYC Department of Education, Credits: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat Back at the city Department of Education’s headquarters, officials were amassing resources: choosing leaders for the Renewal program, hiring principal coaches, and lobbying for state funding.

The outcome of their efforts would matter mightily to the students and staff at Brooklyn Generation and the 93 other Renewal schools. They would also matter to people across the country who have their eye on a persistent question with an elusive answer: How do you turn around a low-performing school when, as is so often the case, students do not arrive ready to learn?

How that question should be answered has fueled a fierce debate in American education policy for more than a decade. Some, including teachers unions, argued that the gaps reflect the effects of poverty and so cannot be closed without first addressing poverty. As Annunziata put it one day after class, “You have to fix the community before you can fix the school.”

Others argued that schools should be held accountable for their students’ performance no matter what kind of homes and neighborhoods those students went home to every day, an argument that came to be known as “no excuses.” It was that argument that Colón Bomani was anticipating as she worried about how outside evaluators would view her efforts to help students with their non-academic needs.

“In any urban setting, kids have challenges. We know that,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former top education official under de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. “It’s the school’s job to help the students overcome those obstacles and be successful.”

Bloomberg emerged as a standard-bearer of the no-excuses camp. His schools chancellor, Joel Klein, introduced a slate of reforms aimed at holding schools and educators accountable for boosting students’ test scores. In addition to pushing for the right to fire teachers who did not raise test scores, they closed more than 160 low-performing schools, replacing them with new, usually smaller, versions — of which Brooklyn Generation was one.

The city’s approach drew followers across the country. But as the years wore on, criticism from inside and outside the city grew as the mayor assailed educators without relieving their challenges. Educators, families, and students increasingly pushed back against the city’s closure announcements, arguing that their schools had not gotten the resources they needed to succeed.

And in New York City and beyond, districts found that they were unable to achieve the gains they wanted through accountability systems alone — or, as Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond put it, to “fire their way to Finland,” where students score high on international tests. Many schools continued to struggle, and even as the high school graduation rate rose, the number of city students ready to succeed in college remained stubbornly small.

Bill de Blasio channeled that criticism during his campaign. He promised to improve conditions across the board for poor New Yorkers, and also promised to consider school closure only as a last resort. He said he would do away with the test score-driven letter grades that Bloomberg issued, saying those scores could not reflect the full value of a school. And unlike Bloomberg, he chose a schools chancellor with a long record as an educator whose record suggested she would focus on improving the quality of teaching in the city’s classrooms.

If anyone is going to be able to develop the middle ground in education policy — to give low-performing schools all the support they need before deciding that they cannot be fixed — it would be his team. And with his ambitions to improve the lives of low-income families clearly extending beyond New York City, whether the plan works matters to all of America.

But while the city teachers union welcomed the Renewal plan, the city faced an uphill battle to execute it. State officials remained more firmly in the accountability camp. Complicating matters was the fact that the de Blasio administration had said little about its plans for struggling schools during its first year before unveiling a program meant to uplift more than 90 schools at once, raising questions about how completely the city had mapped out its plans.

In the end, the city and state agreed that the main goal for Renewal’s first year would be to assess schools’ needs and plan how to meet them. Some of the very lowest performers got intensive support immediately. But the state’s accountability clock would be ticking for all. By June, all 94 schools would have completed plans for how to bolster their academics and the social services their students desperately needed. They would also be a third of the way through the state’s timeline to prevent closure.

That meant that whatever happened at Brooklyn Generation School between January and June would not reflect everything that Renewal might do for the school. But the semester would set a course for the future.

Elodie Oriental, 15, (left) and her twin sister, Ismaelle, sit outside their apartment in Canarsie, Brooklyn. (Stephanie Snyder)

After Elodie recited “Invictus” that evening, and the judges tallied the scores, the emcee returned to the stage to thank the teachers and especially the parents who had come to support the young women.

“It’s a very crucial time in their education,” he said.

Then he announced the winner: A young singer/songwriter from a public performing-arts school in Manhattan, a selective school with a 96 percent graduation rate, where the road to college was more a thruway than a path to be hacked.

Elodie congratulated her before heading toward the door with her sister Iszzy, her teacher, and a friend from Brooklyn Generation. As they were about to leave, the emcee cornered them.

“It’s very difficult and you’re going to get better,” he told the girls. “Stay with it.”

Meanwhile, BGS was preparing for a series of high-stakes reviews. The goal of all those evaluations was to make sure the twins and their classmates got an education comparable to the ones the other girls at the event enjoyed. That would be a wide gap to close, and the school still wasn’t sure how the city would help narrow it.

The twins and their school also faced a shared deadline: Two years from now, BGS will have reached the bar set by the Renewal program, or not, and the girls will know what life holds for them after high school.

As they made their way to the bus stop, Iszzy said it had been good to see the kind of students they will be up against.

“Now I know how tight the competition is,” she said.

Up next: At Brooklyn Generation, teachers begin a frustrating battle to improve.

Support for this series was provided by The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, which was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.