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At James Baldwin, an alternative NYC high school, fresh starts lead to a diploma

A student receives her diploma from Principal Brady Smith during the James Baldwin School's graduation in June 2019.
A student receives her diploma from Principal Brady Smith during the James Baldwin School's graduation in June 2019.
Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

In his first stretch of high school, Gabriel Ibarra often got in fights, skipped out on class, and quickly began falling behind.

But when Ibarra decided he wanted to turn his studies around, it felt like no one would take him seriously.

“When I would try to participate in class or do my work the teachers would be like, ‘no, you barely come to class,’” he said. “I knew I wasn’t dumb. I knew I was far beyond how they saw me.”

Feeling dejected, Ibarra applied to an alternative high school in the hopes of finding a community that would give him a fresh start. On Wednesday, that decision finally paid off: The 21-year-old graduated with about 60 other classmates from the James Baldwin School, part of a network of “transfer” high schools designed for students who struggled to get a foothold at a traditional school and are at the greatest risk of dropping out.

In recent months, transfer schools have been in the crosshairs of state education officials, who have required the schools graduate 67% of their students within six years or be labeled as struggling — a benchmark that is difficult for some transfer schools to meet.

So far, Baldwin has avoided that fate. “We had the right number to stay off the radar,” said Brady Smith, the school’s principal.

As students filed into graduation at the School of Visual Arts Theater in Manhattan, wearing purple robes and mortarboards decorated with quotes and family photos, they described how Baldwin felt different from the traditional high schools they came from.

Several students noted that teachers go by their first names, the school runs a four-day camping trip to help new students bond at the beginning of each school year, classes tend to be smaller, and the school has a more relaxed culture.

“At Baldwin, you could come to school in your pajamas, and as long as you do your work, no one will bother you,” said Brandon Silva, who graduated Wednesday.

Smith said the school strives to counter the narrative that students at alternative schools suffer from inherent deficits. “We’re working hard to shift that and talk about how a student who chooses to transfer is someone who’s taking charge,” he said. “We take such a strength-based approach to this work.”

Gabriel Ibarra
Gabriel Ibarra
Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat

Baldwin also sets itself apart by deemphasizing state exams to measure student performance; it is part of a consortium of schools that do not require a full battery of state Regents exams to graduate. Students must take the state’s English exam but can substitute research projects presented to a panel of three educators to show they have mastered the standards covered on the other four exams.

Diovianne White, one of a handful of student graduation speakers, said she completed projects on the cardiovascular system and the history of slavery, which she suggested were more meaningful than preparation for Regents exams.

She said applying to an alternative school appealed to her because her initial high school experience was “a struggle.”

“They have scanners every day, you have teachers kicking you out of class, you have deans suspending you for every little thing,” she said.

At Baldwin, she said conflicts are handled using restorative approaches, which the city has just announced it plans to expand, such as meetings with counselors to mediate disputes instead of resorting to suspensions. “It makes it feel like you’re going to school to learn, not going to school to possibly be arrested,” White said, noting she plans to attend the Borough of Manhattan Community College to study criminal justice next year.

Sharon Holden, who runs the office of future planning, said Baldwin intentionally doesn’t have an office of college counseling because the school helps students consider a range of options after graduation.

Graduates typically pursue a variety of opportunities, Holden said, including CUNY schools, four-year colleges, gap year programs, and full-time jobs. (A specific breakdown for this year’s graduating class was not immediately available.)

“There definitely is the push to apply to college, but not to go if it doesn’t match with your plans,” Holden said. “It’s about what do you want to do, and what’s the best credential or pathway to get you there.”

For his part, Silva said he hopes to attend a trade program to learn carpentry or become an electrician. Smiling and standing with his friends before he prepared to walk across the stage, he said he wasn’t always sure when this moment would come.

“If I didn’t transfer to this school in time,” he said, “I wouldn’t be graduating right now.”

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