'OC Community' is a column about institutions that we and our friends support and hope to see grow. First up is Broome Street Academy, the super-inspiring New York City charter school that caters to the city's at-risk youth, and whose recent fundraising auction we proudly supported!
I wasn't sure what to expect when I made my way from OC's Howard Street offices to Kentshire
, the amazing antique emporium owned by dear OC friends Matt and Carrie Imberman
, where a charter school called Broome Street Academy was hosting a fundraiser. But I'd soon find out I'd be going from 0 to moved in, oh, sixty seconds.
For that little eye stinger, you can thank the BSA students who performed slam poetry, songs, and short skits interspersed with giggles (remember your high school plays?!) for the event's attendees, who were supporting the Academy's mission of opening its doors to the city's welfare system or transitional housing kids, as well as those who graduated from under performing middle schools. The students' energy was so positive it was infectious. But the most touching part of it all was the kids' combination of poise and effervesence––that radiant and youthful attitude that only teens who know they belong somewhere are capable of feeling and displaying.
A few days later, I visited the school with OC's Jacky and Bettina, and got to know its cheerful hallways lined with baby blue lockers, encouraging mottos, and community-oriented messages. We thought it was so rad that we interviewed BSA's Vice Principal, Clara Janis!
BSA is but a year old! Can you tell us about the school's beginnings?
The school is born out of THE DOOR
's successful marriage of positive youth development and comprehensive wraparound services for the City's most at-risk youth. The Door is a 40-year old agency that is a "one stop shop" for young people ages 12-21 who come for a variety of reasons. The door contains a full medical clinic, a legal department, GED programs, internship opportunities, college access programs, tutoring, counseling services, free lunch and dinner and recreational/therapeutic activities such as art, dance, sports and music. The Door sees over 12,000 young people each year. Some Young people may become members to access the clinic once or twice a year; others take full advantage of all of The Door's activities and counseling on a regular basis.
Three years ago, The Door teamed up with McKinsey & Company to create a five-year strategic plan to bolster areas that would not only ensure The Door's longevity, but would also fill any potential gaps in services that the agency provided. Jeremy Kaplan, who was then the Director of Education at The Door overseeing the GED program, realized that many of the young people (18-20) entering the GED program very well may have thrived in a traditional high school if they had had access to adequate supportive wraparound services. Broome Street Academy Charter High School was created with the vision to serve as an earlier point of intervention for students who not able to feel successful in their neighborhood middle or high schools.
How is BSA different from most charter schools?
While all charter school are public schools whose admission is open to the public and drawn through a lottery, our charter school was created specifically to serve students who are vulnerable. Therefore, we give greater weight in our lottery to students who meet one or more of these criteria.
In our 9th grade class, 50% of our students are repeating the 9th grade for the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th time. 40% of our students are currently in foster care or in temporary housing, and 45% of our students have special needs that require special learning accommodations. Our students have entered our school reading at a 6th grade level and doing math at 5th grade level on average. And while most charter high school schools recruit in their neighborhood middle schools, BSA has cast a wider net, serving students from all over the City (including Co-op City!) and recruiting heavily from foster care agency referrals, low performing middle schools, and other social welfare agencies.
BSA is also unique because we take more of a therapeutic approach to discipline. We are moving toward a restorative justice model, which trains students to understand their actions and give back to the community what they have 'taken' from it. Our therapeutic team, which will consist of four counselors next year, works hand-in-hand with our behavior management team to ensure that the best and most holistic approach is taken with every student.
Are there other schools that do what you guys are doing?
In terms of our partnership with The Door and the provision of comprehensive services—no. In fact, The Door is really a model organization that many social service agencies across the globe look toward to replicate. However, the scope of its services under one roof is truly unique. Our goal is to create a real home for our students for the full four years and to give them the necessarily life and academic skills that they are going to need to success in college or in a career after they leave us.
There are other schools (some charter) in the City that serve a similar body of LGBTQ students, such as Harvey Milk High School, or a similarly large population of students with disabilities, such as Innovation High School in Harlem or Opportunity Charter School, but our model is the only one that I know of that exists in the country.
What do you think makes a positive high school experience for the kids at BSA?
Two words: patience and acceptance. We're not giving up on them. And believe me, they push the limits. They test us all the time. Our students act out because they are used to being rejected, but we haven't gone anywhere and they are beginning to see that. And now, they aren't going anywhere. In fact, we can't get rid of them at 6 PM! They are still in the hallways and classrooms either doing work, at after school drama or cosmetology club, or just hanging with a teacher.
Students also feel very free to be themselves here. On our first Halloween, we had two of our male students dress in full-on drag and they were literally heralded as heroes as they walked through the hallways. LGBTQ students have acknowledged feeling very safe here and the students are very protective of the school, whether they like to admit it or not.
What obstacles did you face before opening BSA's doors in September of 2011?
One of the greatest challenges that BSA experienced was it had a staff of two (and a half) until May of 2011. When I came on board, we quickly hired all of our teachers (most schools are finished with that process in February) and worked arduously to build a school culture over the summer. We built a school in about 2.5 months.
We also struggled with enrollment because as a new school, we had literally no school to show to families and future students. We had the promise of a school and a theoretical space; however, we had not completed any renovations as of June and had no resources. At the beginning of the year we were writing on old school chalkboards and poster paper. It was a bit of a throwback to old school teaching.
Any stand-out stories you want to share?
Wow. That's tough. I'm not sure where to begin. How about this one—it's honest and a real reflection of the school. Some of our kids are fighters. That's just how they've grown up and how they resolve conflict. In the middle of March, we had a succession of nasty fights in one day that had been brewing for a while. The school took a very strong stance against it and made it clear that this type of 'conflict resolution' would not be tolerated here. But for as much as the administration and teachers were able to do, the students did more.
Many of our students banded together with the help of staff to organize an anti-violence day. Students performed and emcee'd at our first school-wide assembly with powerful poems and skits about tolerating each other and resolving conflicts more calmly and fairly. We invited a couple of guest speakers from our greater community who were parents to victims of violence or bullying.
One of the guest speakers was the mother of our openly gay Dean of Students. She spoke about her experience with her son being bullied; it was her first time speaking in public — ever. She spoke to the most respectful and caring crowd of students I have ever experienced in my life. I could hear a pin drop in the room and at one point, the mother, who had lost her words, paused in front a quiet audience for a few moments. One of our students broke the silence and called out: "Go ahead, Mr. T's mom, we're with you." There probably wasn't a dry eye in the place.
That is amazing!
Another student, after hearing a father's story about his son's gang-related death, turned to a teacher and said: "Ok, it's time for me to get out of it [the Bloods]—and that's for real this time.". The assembly was followed by an afternoon of school beautification where the students had the opportunity to stay for four hours working on various projects around the school. Students cleaned, put up inspirational quotations on the walls, painted murals, made peace flags and ate lunch together. It was beautiful.
Later that night, the mother of one of our assembly's emcees called me and said: "Ms. Janis, KB told me he was crying on his way home from school." I replied, "Why is that, Mrs. B? Is he okay?" She said, "Ms. Janis, he told me that he's never felt so part of something—like he's never had such a home." To me, that is success.
What's been the most challenging part of your job?
Navigating the now and the future. It's a balancing act. Growing the school and taking care of it seem to be at odds at times.
What is the best part about your job?
The fact that I can't imagine doing anything else. It's what gets me through.
What does the future look like for BSA?
With plans to grow in the upcoming years. Ultimately, we will be 325 students. We have roughly 100 now and are taking in another 100 for next year. We have plans to renovate our current floor to accommodate more classrooms, but it will be a tight squeeze until we can raise enough money to add on the floor above us.
Eventually, we'd like to expand to have a theatre (students love the drama program here) and a full gym on the roof (and rooftop garden!)––facilities that The Door unfortunately does not have right now. We'd love to have the most robust after school program that the world has ever seen! We believe so strongly individual self-expression and creativity and we love any opportunity that gets student plugged into our school or into themselves.
To offer support our friends at Broome Street Academy, contact Lindsay Moreau at 212-453-0237 or LMOREAU@BROOMESTREETACADEMY.ORG.
Broome Street Academy