A school community grows stronger

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

Some of the boys sat with their arms crossed and hoods up as Tanya Odums, a social worker who heads Brooklyn Generation School’s “wellness” team, read a list of their misdeeds.

Refusing to do work. Showing up high. Walking out of class.

Odums surveyed their faces as she quoted last month from teacher reports. An imposing woman who has worked at juvenile detention and drug-treatment centers, she saw their posturing and misbehavior as symptoms of something deeper than a bad attitude. She asked the teenagers why they’d made their poor choices.

One boy pinned it on peer pressure. Another said it came from feeling disrespected by certain teachers. And another explained that it was a way to deflect attention when he didn’t understand what was happening in class.

“Not knowing the work,” he said, “so you got to distract somebody else.”

BGS formed that “brotherhood group” this spring to rope in the boys, who were falling behind in class and skipping school, before they strayed any farther off course. Besides holding the weekly meetings, staffers also took the boys to a nearby boxing gym to help them bond and build self-discipline. A “sisterhood” group was learning African dance as a form of therapy. Both initiatives sprang from a major grant the school won last year to help it transform into a “community school” filled with services to treat the underlying ailments, from asthma to abuse to addiction, that can trip up students in the classroom.

With its 50 percent graduation rate, Brooklyn Generation is part of the city’s new “Renewal” improvement program for underachieving schools. As this spring began to melt into summer, the half of that program meant to revamp the schools’ academics had yet to roll out at BGS, though the school was forming a plan for next year. However, the other half of the program — creating community schools through an infusion of services — was starting to take flight at BGS, which has a tradition of attending to students’ out-of-classroom needs.

Clearly, counseling alone wouldn’t be enough to catch students like the boy who acts out because he doesn’t understand the lesson. But Brooklyn Generation hoped it might be a first step toward turnaround.

After the boys explained themselves at the group meeting, Odums told them they had a choice: they could leave now if they didn’t really want to try to fix things.

“Because honestly, brotherhood is for people who really want to do something different, who really want to make better choices, who really want to change,” she said. “And trust me, change is hard.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to revive low-performing, high-needs schools centers around the community school approach.

The idea is to pack them with health clinics, food pantries, adult literacy classes and a range of other services that go beyond tutoring and teaching. City officials like to use the example of a girl who needs eyeglasses: Until that problem is addressed, she can’t very well learn. The community school approach is an expansion of that idea, an argument that trying to teach a child who is hungry, unhealthy, or scarred by trauma is a fool’s errand.

Progressives and teachers unions have long favored this model, and de Blasio made it a centerpiece of his education agenda in a sharp change of course for the nation’s largest school system. Whatever people at Renewal schools think about the rest of the program, most tend to embrace the community school part — particularly, its implication that a school’s struggles have as much to do with the ravages of poverty as with the quality and commitment of its staff.

Brooklyn Generation has long held the view that schools must tend to the “whole child” — their minds, bodies, and emotions. Early on, BGS social workers helped teachers plan lessons; today, they meet weekly with teacher teams for “kid talks” to review students’ problems. In fact, BGS successfully applied for its community school grant before the Renewal program started, and now was using it how the city hoped other Renewal schools would.

It contracted with a nonprofit, Urban Arts Partnership, which sent the school a Haitian Creole-speaking nurse to oversee the new initiative. The school hired three new mental health counselors and brought in teaching artists to do things like explain world history through rap songs.

A group of students volunteered to be “ambassadors” for the initiative, polling their peers about what services they wanted and helping organize a kickoff event. At the event, one of the artist-instructors taught dance moves to dozens of parents, who brainstormed issues they’d like the school to help them with (getting health insurance, handling immigration matters, arranging care for elders) while they dined on salad and meatballs.

One Saturday, a different artist got about 20 student volunteers to paint a neon mural by the school cafeteria. Another weekend, the school took 40 students and parents on an overnight trip to several upstate colleges, where they met undergrads who are BGS alumni. The hope was to ease the minds of parents who couldn’t imagine letting their children attend school away from home.

The grant let BGS reimburse the parents for the $50 they’d paid for the bus ride and hotel. One mother was especially thankful — she said she’d held off paying a utility bill in order to attend.

While the services were open to all students, chronically absent students were a special focus, getting counseling and home visits. The work seems to have paid off: The school’s attendance rate climbed from 88.5 percent in September to 94 percent last month.

“The community school’s a blast,” said Principal Lydia Colón Bomani. “We’d been doing this work before, but without the support.”

Iszzy and Elodie Oriental at a meeting of the school’s grief group. (Stephanie Snyder)

The dancing and counseling were meant to draw shaky students back into the school and get them ready to learn. But a few students were already more than ready.

Elodie and Ismaelle Oriental sprinted through their sophomore year at Brooklyn Generation from one class or extracurricular activity to the next. The twin sisters were convinced that, with enough hard work, they could make the leap from their home near BGS in Canarsie, Brooklyn, to a top-flight university.

In fact, that’s where they were headed one sunny Friday in May, just as their classmates were jostling out of the school building eager to start the weekend. It was 3:30 p.m. The twins had until six to travel the 12 miles from BGS to a mentoring program at Columbia University in Upper Manhattan.

They took the 103 bus to the 2 train station, bought turkey sandwiches at a deli, then boarded the subway. As they ate quietly, a group of teenagers crammed into the train car. One of the boys loudly asked the group whom he should tase. A few stops later, a sharp buzzing sound filled the subway car as one of the boys slammed to the floor, his mouth agape at the shock of being struck by a stun gun. The twins kept silent.

Two transfers later, at 116th Street in Manhattan, they hurried across Columbia’s stone walkways and into their seats in the business school auditorium. It was 6:01 p.m.

"We’d been doing this work before, but without the support."

Lydia Colón Bomani, principal

The new services that Brooklyn Generation added this year are aimed especially at off-track students, but the school also rounds up what resources it can for high-achievers like the twins. They went on the overnight college trip last month, and they attend free enrichment programs at four different colleges and universities, including Columbia, that BGS has formed partnerships with.

The girls take advantage of the school’s non-academic offerings too. It hosts weekly “grief group” meetings for students who’ve lost loved ones, which the twins take part in since their mother died at the start of the school year. A deeply religious woman who immigrated from Haiti as a teenager and later ran a hair salon from her apartment, she had two rules for her daughters, which Elodie listed in a journal after her mother’s death.

“Stay in church,” she wrote next to a scribbled star. “Finish school and become something in life.”

By 8:30, the mentoring program had ended. As the twins were leaving the building with a couple of BGS classmates, they spotted some Columbia students wearing their light blue graduation gowns.

It was as if they had stepped into their dream of the future. The twins rushed over to congratulate the young women, and Iszzy gave each a hug.

“You must be so proud of yourselves,” she said.

Then the BGS girls made their way back to the subway. Along the way, they were mesmerized by the lush grass between the classroom buildings, greener and thicker than that in Canarsie. They had been in school since 8:30 that morning, and they needed a break.

All at once, the girls toppled onto the grass, rolling and shrieking. When they got up, they promised to keep the moment a secret, then headed to the train that would take them home.

A new mural at Brooklyn Generation. (Stephanie Snyder)

By spring, Brooklyn Generation’s community school efforts were blossoming: Students were boxing and dancing, painting murals, and touring colleges.

Up to that point, the school had heard little about the crucial other half of the Renewal program — the academic overhaul. But, near the end of the first of three years that Renewal schools have to make gains or face possible closure, BGS started to see signs of what was to come. The first sign was a woman named Sanatha Alexis.

Beginning in April, she had been appearing in the back of classrooms, silently taking notes on her laptop. She was the school’s director of school renewal, or DSR, a new position in each superintendent’s office focused on the schools in the turnaround program. Some directors have multiple Renewal schools to oversee — one South Bronx district has 10 schools in the program — but Alexis has just one, Brooklyn Generation.

Eventually, she would visit every classroom, then summarize how often the school’s teachers did things like ask demanding questions or check students’ understanding for data reports that the directors were producing for their schools. (Because teachers weren’t sure why Alexis was observing them, some worried to their union representative that she was evaluating them on behalf of the superintendent.) Later, Alexis would help the school craft its improvement plan for next year.

"Next year is critical for Brooklyn Generation as part of the Renewal School initiative. But next year is also critical for students."

Jonathan Spear, co-founder of Generation Schools Network

Alexis’s visits were part of a burst of activity in the Renewal program this spring, half a year after the program launched. In May, the mayor announced that the city would boost the 94 Renewal schools’ budgets by an average of $250,000 each. In June, the schools were told that they would temporarily stop receiving latecomer students, who often pose extra challenges for schools when they arrive mid-year.

During this time, the city also gave each Renewal school goals for next year’s attendance, test scores, and graduation rates. Using those goals and feedback from reviews earlier in the year, schools were to start piecing together detailed roadmaps for next year. That planning was to culminate with an all-hands-on-deck meetings involving key players from the school and the city, as well as outside researchers.

“To be honest, it could be very productive,” 10th-grade English teacher Louise Bogue said to some colleagues the day before the meeting. She saw it as a chance to combine the most useful recommendations from the reviewers with the school’s own initiatives into one realistic plan. “If we collaborate, all the things we’ve been talking about, we could make that the focus.”

On May 19, the day of the big meeting, BGS had paid for a catered lunch and hired substitutes for participating teachers. But that morning, the researchers told the school they had encountered travel problems. The city rescheduled the meeting for the end of June — after the plans were due.

Those plans were meant to be the main product of this first year of the Renewal program, the upshot of all the evaluations and analyses. Now Colón Bomani and her assistant principal would have to take the feedback from city and state reviewers, the city-issued targets, and the requirements of the community school grant and turn it all into an action plan with the ongoing help of just one official, Alexis.

As the year came to a close, the staff at Brooklyn Generation watched their community school work begin to flourish. They could envision a future in which the school would be a powerful antidote to the traumas and challenges that students experience outside its walls.

But the second prong of the city’s Renewal initiative, improvements in academics, had yet to take root. The school’s first Renewal visit came midway through the year, its teachers went without coaching, and fixes to their budget and enrollment policies wouldn’t kick in until next year. While BGS staffers were eager for that future aid, the first phase of the program had left them skeptical.

The de Blasio administration’s grand wager is that with both elements — services to set students up to learn, and support to help teachers teach them — a low-performing school can transform into a high-performing one. Next year, the midway point of the three-year Renewal timeline, Brooklyn Generation and the other 93 schools will have plans in place to improve their academics and nonprofit partners to help bring in new services.

That leaves the city to ensure that each Renewal school enacts both parts of the program, and that it quickly intervenes if they don’t. The outcome will determine whether de Blasio’s services-fused-with-academics brand of turnaround can uplift the bottom tier of America’s largest school district, setting the twins and their peers on a straighter course to college.

“Next year is critical for Brooklyn Generation as part of the Renewal School initiative,” said Jonathan Spear, co-founder of Generation Schools Network, which provides support to BGS. “But next year is also critical for students – just like this year was critical for students.”

Elodie Oriental, 15, (right), stands with another Brooklyn Generation student at Canarsie Pier. (Stephanie Snyder)

It had rained the day before, but on the June afternoon when the school’s grief group went to the bay, the sun was out and seagulls sliced across the powder-blue sky.

This was the group’s final meeting of the year, so they had taken a city bus to a nearby park on Jamaica Bay to celebrate each other and the loved ones they’d lost. At the park, they laid a plastic tablecloth over a picnic table and set out watermelon, macaroni and cheese baked, Haitian patties, and a red velvet cake that Iszzy and Elodie brought.

In a couple weeks, the twins would take their Regents exams, then it would be summer. The girls planned to take daily eight-hour summer science classes at SUNY Downstate until late in the summer, when they would travel to Haiti for the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death. After that would come junior year, then senior year, and then — if they got solid guidance, stellar grades and test scores, and some luck — maybe they would make it to one of the colleges they dreamed about.

The partnership with SUNY, the guidance, the grades, and test preparation would all flow from BGS, which would also be striving these next two years to meet ambitious goals. By the end of the month, it would see a flicker of promise: Its graduation rate was on course to rise six points or more from the previous year — still far below the city average, but a record high for the school. As with the twins, the path ahead still looked long and uncertain, but the school had taken a step forward.

The teenagers started to eat. Of the eight who came that day, all but one had lost a mother. A boy whose mother died in October said he was grateful to have found a group of people with such great spirits. A girl with hoop earrings smiled and said the boy was annoying, but she could never be sad when he was around.

Odums, whose own mother died when she was a teenager, asked the students what advice they’d give to others who lost loved ones. Iszzy’s advice was to stay focused on education, recalling something a woman in church had recently told her.

“She was like, ‘I really appreciate you and your sister,’” Iszzy recalled to the group, “‘because even if your mom died, in 15 or 20 years, people will always remember her because of the kind of life you guys live.”

Odums nodded. “You’re honoring them by making your life great.”

Eventually, the teenagers walked over to the water and each dropped in a rose. A few white petals went sailing in the breeze. After some cake and hugs, they said goodbye. Then the twins headed back home in the direction of Brooklyn Generation, the school whose future is intertwined with their own.

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.