Facebook Twitter
Principal Asya Johnson chats with students during an AP class.

Principal Asya Johnson chats with students during an AP class.

Alex Zimmerman

‘Everything you got’: How a Bronx principal is trying to restore hope to a once-troubled school, one student at a time

At 12:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the South Bronx, Principal Asya Johnson was scheduled for three meetings at once.

So as she hurried out of her office and descended the stairs — picking up a few discarded candy wrappers along the way — she settled on a classroom where teachers were trying to figure out what concepts students had missed on the English Regents test, an exam students must pass to graduate.

“Usually I’m not in three places,” she quipped. “I’m in two.”

Johnson is a no-nonsense Philadelphia native short enough to be mistaken for a student. The 36-year-old is also responsible for breathing new life into Longwood Prep, a long-struggling school formerly known as Banana Kelly High School. She’s under intense pressure to perform: The school is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $568 million “Renewal” program, which pours extra resources into troubled schools to spark a revival — but threatens to close those that falter.

When she arrived after a stint at a Harlem charter school, Longwood Prep had one of the highest dropout rates in the city, low staff morale, and had churned through four principals in five years — one of whom was doused with pepper spray in the school’s cafeteria and was later shot with a BB pellet. (Johnson’s immediate predecessor, whom she replaced in January 2016, abruptly resigned after reportedly fabricating reports of teacher observations.)

It’s too early to know whether she can transform the school. But schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised her on a recent visit, and some of her colleagues say she has already instilled a new sense of order and discipline.

Sometimes, that’s through a tough-love approach: pulling a distracted student’s headphones out of his ears or calling out dress-code violators in the hallway. Yet she’s also happy to offer students one of the fresh shirts she stashes in a cabinet, or invite them into her office to vent.

Johnson settles into her desk before students arrive on a recent Thursday morning.

Johnson settles into her desk before students arrive on a recent Thursday morning.

Alex Zimmerman

“She has that firm hand with the kid glove on the outside,” said Joahan Suarez, who works for a nonprofit embedded in the school. “Not too many people can pull that off.”

Crucially, many staffers say they support her vision rather than seeing her as just the latest in a rotating cast of leaders. Johnson’s office is lined with notes they wrote her. “This school is not the same school it was,” one reads.

Last week, Chalkbeat shadowed Johnson — from sunrise to sunset — to see what the job of turning around a struggling school looks like. Here are highlights from her day.

6:55 a.m. — Moment of peace

When Johnson settles into her desk, the streetlights outside have just started to flicker off and the halls are silent.

Johnson’s days are typically packed, a feature of running a school with an urgent to-do list, including: convince parents that it is no longer a school of last resort and improve its low graduation rate, which was 50 percent this year (according to preliminary figures) — an increase from 2016, yet still far below last year’s citywide rate of 73 percent and the 59 percent average among Renewal schools.

She leaves her Bronx home and arrives at her desk by 7 a.m. most days. She rarely walks out before 6 p.m.

She relishes the early morning as a time to catch up on emails and paperwork, since she spends most nights catching up with her three sons and husband (who’s an assistant principal at a different school) and doing assignments for a doctoral program in educational leadership.

This morning, she’s reviewing her notes from recent classroom observations that will help determine teacher ratings, which she enters in an online database despite a spotty internet connection.

But it isn’t long before the stillness in her office is broken. Her staff has started to arrive, which means she’s in troubleshooting mode.

One teacher drops in to report that she wasn’t able to print out students’ reading levels, which she planned to share during parent conferences. Another teacher, locked out of her classroom, asks to borrow a set of keys. And Suarez, the community school director, stops by to ask whether Johnson would consider adding a law-and-government program to entice prospective students.

Johnson corrals a student between classes.

Johnson corrals a student between classes.

Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

Next, Johnson meets with the school’s director of recruitment and retention, Enrique Lizardi, who spent his Sunday promoting the school at a Bronx high-school fair. Over the past five years, the school’s population has dwindled from 423 students to just over 200 — a slight uptick from last year. Still, the school must add students if it wants to survive: The city has shuttered several schools in recent years that it deemed too small to sustain.

For now, the pair agree to contact the guidance counselor of every student who expressed interest at the high school fair over the weekend. Her team has already peppered local bodegas and restaurants with fliers advertising Longwood Prep, which she argues is completely different than its precursor. But convincing parents is another matter.

“How do you get people to understand that this isn’t Banana Kelly with a new name?” she says later.

9:25 a.m. — ‘Glows and grows’

“This unit we’re learning how to write argument essays,” teacher Grace Fauquet booms over a group of seniors in her Advanced Placement writing class as Johnson slips into an empty student desk.

One of her greatest responsibilities is coaching her teachers, many of whom are new to the school. (In 2016, all 25 teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs — just 12 returned.) She helps them improve their craft by regularly visiting their classrooms and offering feedback, even beyond what is required by the official evaluation process.

After the lesson, she’ll send Fauquet — one of the school’s rising stars — an email with “glows, grows and next steps.”

Fauquet arrived in 2014 with just a few weeks of training through Teach For America, the nonprofit that places recent college graduates in high-poverty schools like Longwood Prep. That same year, Mayor de Blasio named the former Banana Kelly as one of nearly 100 low-achieving schools in his much-publicized Renewal program — a painful acknowledgement of the school’s challenges, but also a promise to send it relief. For Fauquet, that meant a new instructional coach provided through the program, which she credits with helping her survive her tumultuous first years of teaching.

For this lesson, Fauquet has arranged students in roughly 10 pairs and tasked them with researching and writing short presentations that explain different logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks or circular reasoning.

Before long, Johnson is weaving throughout the room, clipboard in hand, bending down to speak to students. “Did you take it right from the text or did you paraphrase?” she asks a young woman who appeared to have copied a definition verbatim. “Make sure you paraphrase.”

Johnson observes teacher Grace Fauquet (left) during her AP writing class.

Johnson observes teacher Grace Fauquet (left) during her AP writing class.

Alex Zimmerman

After the lesson, Johnson says she’s happy with what she saw, but plans to advise Fauquet to get her students to question each other during class — an engaging and subtle way for the teacher to gauge students’ understanding. She plans to return for another observation in two weeks, when she hopes to see tweaks based on her feedback.

“I’m not trying to catch people out there,” she says. But “if we’re not in classrooms, and just give them professional development and then come in to evaluate them — that’s not support.”

2:00 p.m. — Searching for “gray-area kids”

None of Johnson’s reforms will make a difference if students never make it to school.

So after quickly polishing off a microwaveable lunch in her office, she sets off for a meeting where her staff is discussing what’s keeping certain students out of class — and coming up with solutions.

In recent years, the school has struggled with high rates of absenteeism: Roughly 57 percent of students missed 10 percent or more of last school year — down from a crippling 75 percent in 2015. Chronic absenteeism doesn’t just have a detrimental effect on student learning, it also is linked to higher dropout and incarceration rates. It’s an issue education officials have identified across Renewal schools, and is a thermometer for the overall health of a school.

At a long rectangular table, a group of staffers led by teacher Cristina Abellas is trying to marshal the school’s resources to intervene with one student at a time.

Using new software that lets schools quickly identify chronically absent students, the educators take turns explaining why specific students have missed school: medical emergencies, court appearances, mental-health crises.

As in many of her meetings, Johnson participates without running the show. She’s delegated responsibility for overseeing certain meetings and programs to teachers who take on the extra work in exchange for a salary bump and slightly lighter course load.  

Johnson listens as the staffers describe what they’ve tried in each case and what steps should come next — including home visits, calling parents into the school for meetings, or calls to parole officers. One teacher described her strategy for working with a student whose absences seemed to stem from depression.

“I’m sharing poetry with her,” the teacher says, “trying to express her feelings in a positive way.”

Cristina Abellas (center), community school director Joahan Suarez (right), and Johnson at an attendance meeting

Cristina Abellas (center), community school director Joahan Suarez (right), and Johnson at an attendance meeting

Alex Zimmerman

Next, Johnson asks the group to identify one “gray-area kid” from each grade: Students on the precipice of chronic absenteeism who could thrive if the right adults gave them enough attention. It was an experiment in all-hands-on-deck crisis prevention.

“Everything you got,” she tells the group as they start suggesting names, “with every single one of these kids.”

3:18 p.m. — Is it working?

As the school day winds down, Johnson summons a small team to her office to tackle a crucial question hanging over many of the school’s turnaround efforts: How to tell whether they’re working?

Johnson, Abellas, the assistant principal, and a staffer from Replications, the school’s nonprofit partner, sit around a cramped conference table trying to articulate exactly what the attendance program’s goals are and how to describe them in a measureable way — a sometimes gruelling discussion at the end of a long day.

“We’re getting somewhere,” says Replications program manager John Elwell after the conversation stalls for a moment. “Let’s not get discouraged.”

During a recent visit, state officials asked the school to begin documenting the impact of social-emotional programs offered with help from Replications. The programs run the gamut from hip-hop therapy sessions, where students use the school’s recording studio to express feelings that can be hard to convey in traditional counseling, to intake interviews where Replications staffers assess students’ health needs.

More than an hour after the group started trying to list realistic objectives for the program, their work is still not finished. But they’ve made some progress and agree to meet again soon.

Afterwards, Johnson says goodbye to some staffers who’d stopped by, checks her email, and gathers up her belongings to leave — nearly 12 hours after she stepped into her office that morning.

She acknowledges that there’s still lots of work ahead, and that change can be slow. But she plans to stay long enough for the baby steps to turn into strides.

“If I could retire from this school and this job that would be my dream,” she says, the light fading outside. “I want to be able to say: ‘Here’s a model to turn around a school.’”