Walking through the hallways of Broome Street Academy Charter High School (BSA) in lower Manhattan, you get the sense that Head of School Dr. Barbara McKeon knows the name of every single student. She calls out to each one we pass by name, either in praising them for following the code of conduct, or lightly chastising them for chewing gum, donning non-uniform clothing, or being outside their classroom without a hall pass. Each one respectfully replies; there appears to be true mutual respect.
Photo Courtesy of BSA
“We’re a restorative justice school. We’re not sitting in circles, but every minute of every day we’re reinforcing societal norms with our students, while treating them with dignity. That atmosphere resonates with them; they get it.”
With all the school offerings in New York City, Broome Street really stands out as a superstar. The school opened in the fall of 2011 and works in close partnership with The Door, a youth development non-profit which provides a plethora of social services. This unique model allows for academics and youth development services, like counselors and social service providers, all under one roof.
And here’s something else that makes BSA so special: they give a lottery preference to homeless children, and children in foster care. Nearly half the student body falls into that category, and the school recruits students to fill the remaining seats who are failing in reading and writing, and are often two grades behind where they should be. BSA shatters the myth that charters don’t serve those kids who are hard to teach. BSA serves an incredibly vulnerable population and does it through tough love, routines, a focus on academics, and respect. The school also uses the CHAMPION Model©, which Dr. McKeon says ensures every student has an adult mentor supporting them every step of the way to graduation. The champion is that student’s single link to home as well.
She told me about one of the students she is serving as the champion for this school year. The girl had gone missing, and her father, friends, and Dr. McKeon could not locate her or get in touch with her for weeks. Dr. McKeon said it was a scary ordeal, and that eventually the girl turned back up at school, and confided in McKeon where she had been and what her troubles were – because the student trusted McKeon enough to confide in her, McKeon was able to immediately get her the help she needed to get back on track. She says her work at BSA is not easy, but it’s necessary.
“Every day I see sorrow. But I also see hope. We are here to support kids and help them get their lives on track.”
Photo courtesy of BSA
And the school is doing just that. McKeon is in her fifth year and when she came to BSA she was tasked with turning the school around. When she started, there was a 64 percent attendance rate. The week I visited in mid September, the school was seeing an 87 percent attendance rate. McKeon concedes it’s an “epic battle” to keep attendance high because the school has a high truancy population. Another great achievement – in 2016, the school saw a 70 percent college acceptance rate, far surpassing the city-wide average for Black students. As a Community School in partnership with The Door, students also have opportunities to pursue career pathways after graduation.
So how does BSA do it?
“Predictability. Routines – not just for students, but for staff. We recognize our students are teenagers, and they come with a lot of baggage. When I started, we made a lot of changes but we did so with the input of the students. We made changes with them not to them. It really should be their school.”
The school offers Saturday sessions for learning, enrichment programs at lunch time, and employs small learning environments with two teachers per classroom whenever possible.
Photo courtesy of BSA
BSA has been so successful they were awarded a New York State Education Department dissemination grant to share best practices with nearby priority and focus schools – schools that are in need of help turning things around. Two of the schools are implementing the CHAMPION Model© - again proving how charters can lift the tide for schools in close proximity.
Within the charter school community and even the greater education community in New York City, BSA is a standout. The school has garnered some great press recently (like here and here). But McKeon wishes more cities across the nation had the tools BSA did to help turn-around struggling schools.
She also laments the division in education. “I want to talk about school for all – where we’re not always labeling ourselves, but we’re just talking about ‘school’”, she says, lamenting the district-charter divide that we see in the city, the state, and across the nation. She also talks about the divide within the charter community between schools that are co-located, and those that aren’t, and says the focus should just be on “school” and not the name, or type, of school.
If we could get back to the basics – great schools – and empowering families to make the decisions that best suit their child’s education, we might see more success stories for students, which is at the heart of why educators like McKeon signed up for this work in the first place.
“No more “us” and “them”. Just a continuum of great schools. Period.”