a chance for renewal

A school community grows stronger

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Ismaelle Oriental, 15, (center), and her twin-sister, Elodie, walk with friends after school.

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.

What makes BGS different from other city schools

Longer day & year

  • Day is 30 minutes longer than typical city school
  • Ninth and 10th-graders have 20 extra school days
  • Teachers still work 180 days

College & career courses

  • Extra school days used for college prep and career exploration
  • Career areas include law, finance, medicine, art & design

Focus on student wellness

  • Weekly “kid talk” meetings where counselors and teachers troubleshoot student issues
  • Counseling groups focused on high school transition, discipline problems, loss of family members

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.
PHOTO: Roy Barnett/McGlone
Iszzy and Elodie Oriental at a meeting of the school’s grief group.

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.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
A new mural at Brooklyn Generation.

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

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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede