Early one morning in 2001, during his first week as principal of the Bronx’s vast Evander Childs High School, Andrew Turay was in the main office trying to get the television to work. Suddenly, it flickered to life, just as news cameras showed dark smoke surging out of a World Trade Center tower.

It wasn’t until late that evening that he had calmed the school and safely sent all of his students home — the first of many long days attending to crises.

“I tell you,” said Turay, 62, the founding principal of Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx, “it was a transformational experience.”

Turay, a Harvard-educated native of Sierra Leone, is retiring this month after working for 30 years in Bronx schools. He could use a break: He estimates that he missed one day of school for every decade he spent in the system.

Turay joined a fast-track teacher training program at age 32, after which he spent many years teaching social studies at historic Morris High School (where he won a Walt Disney American Teacher award) before becoming an assistant principal there. Then, just as Evander Childs was in danger of closing, a superintendent asked Turay to take it over. He jumped at the opportunity, leaving in such a rush that he never emptied his office at Morris.

But his stint at Evander was cut short when the city decided to split the school into six small ones. The Bloomberg administration was just launching its drive to create scores of new small schools, and so Turay decided to join in. In 2004, with the help of the the Anti-Defamation League, he created Peace and Diversity Academy, a small high school that was relocated several times before ending up at the South Bronx building it currently shares with Metropolitan High School.

Last year, Peace and Diversity found itself in the city’s new Renewal program, which aims to turn around the lowest performing schools. The school needs the help — just a third of students graduate in four years, compared to 68 percent citywide. But it remains to be seen if that program can do the trick quickly enough.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview with Turay, as he prepares to leave the school he brought into existence a decade ago.

Choosing a path

Turay was raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where his father owned a small business. As a child, Turay considered becoming a professional athlete or a professor.

When you grow up in African villages or countries, that’s all you want to do: You want to be a lecturer or you want to be a soccer player. So I went to school, had partial scholarships here and there, worked to fund my own education, and ended up with several masters degrees.

In a small way, this is my own American dream: going from nowhere to being able to create several great small schools, including this one.

The battle for Evander

With thousands of students and a reputation for violence, Evander Childs was one of the first city high schools to install metal detectors. When Turay arrived, the police had taken to parking their patrol cars in a row outside the main entrance.

The optics weren’t great. It wasn’t like a school. They had a metal detector. These guys they occupied a room on the first floor. Their cars were all lined up. As a kid coming in here, this was not like a school.

We were able to negotiate with them to move their cars to the side. I took the office they were occupying, I gave that to the parents. We made peace.

Tough times for Peace and Diversity

Turay said the city's new turnaround program for struggling schools like his could work, but perhaps not in the short timeframe the city has proposed.
Turay said the city’s new turnaround program for struggling schools like his could work, but perhaps not in the short timeframe the city has proposed.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall

The school switched floors in the same building three times in its first three years, then moved to another building, before finally landing in its current shared space. That space presents its own challenges, like a makeshift computer lab and a lack of year-round air conditioning.

We’ve moved around so often that we’ve lost so many kids. And because we don’t have some amenities, we’re not very attractive to some kids. It’s almost a catch-22.

Meanwhile, the school is sent many students who are behind academically, Turay said.

It’s clear to everybody. The nature of the kids who are coming in are typically below, they’re not ready for high school … The old days they were called Levels 1 and 2. That’s been our clientele.

A chance for renewal

Peace and Diversity is one of 94 low-performing schools in the Renewal program, which was launched last fall. The schools will receive extra training for staff and support services for students, along with increased oversight.

I think it’s the right approach, the right course of action: provide the support on a sustained basis, and let people try that out.

I think prioritizing one or two or three effective practices, drilling down and supporting people, providing models and support, and being patient with it can help. I think people need to see what has worked well in other places that are similar to them.

However, Turay added, it may take more to revamp the schools, including changes to the way schools are assigned students.

There’s a huge undercurrent that says if you just build it, they will come. Well, they do and they don’t. There’s no question that the quality of teaching and learning and assessment in a school has to be optimal to sustain improvement. But there are these other intervening variables: Who are the kids? Where are they coming from? What are their needs? What are their parental circumstances?

I think it has to be looked at from the point of view of equity … There should be a balance between who’s coming here and there, and not just shoving kids because they have a space available without requisite resources.

Turay with Nicole Gomez, 24, who was in the inaugural class at Peace and Diversity Academy. Now a case manager at a Bronx social service agency, Gomez still stays in touch with Turay. She said the school "was his baby."
Turay with Nicole Gomez, 24, who was in the inaugural class at Peace and Diversity Academy. Now a case manager at a Bronx social service agency, Gomez still stays in touch with Turay. She said the school “was his baby.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall

Turay said the main shortcoming of the program so far is that education department officials have shared too few details with the schools. Here is what he said he wished schools had been told at the start of the program:

This is where we are, this is what the state has asked, this is what we’re doing, this is when it’s due, these are our roles and responsibilities and timelines and resources. I think that a meeting and greeting and sharing at the outset would have clarified a lot of things, so people have a good sense that this is going to take awhile, but we have a roadmap.

You have to be seen as being transparent to people. It builds trust and mutual respect, it allays some people’s anxieties about what really is going on. They may not like what’s going on, but at least they know what it is. That’s why some of my staff are anxious about the implications for them. So the clearer it becomes, I think the better off everyone is.

Turay ended by expressing some doubt about whether the program will improve the schools quickly enough to satisfy state officials.

I think it can work, but I don’t know whether it can work in three years. Especially given the fact that we were slow in getting off the ground, and there really wasn’t a very transparent understanding of what it was, where it was going, and when it was going to go. …

I just don’t see that Governor Cuomo is going to have a lot of patience to have struggling schools not make what they consider required progress in the timeframe that’s expected. … I don’t think there’s a political will to wait and wait and wait.