When a child sets foot into New Beginnings Family Academy, a pre-K through grade 8 charter school located in Bridgeport, that child can expect to be loved, nurtured, and most importantly, affirmed. That concept of affirmation was a recurring theme in our conversation with Ronelle P. Swagerty, Chief Executive Officer at New Beginnings Family Academy, and a driving force behind why this school is "Making Black History Today."
Focus on Social and Emotional Learning
Opened in 2002, NBFA serves predominantly Black and brown students, most of whom come from low-income households. Swagerty says that many of the children who come to NBFA do so carrying the “adult-size chronic stressors” associated with poverty, such as hunger, fear, exposure to violence and a host of other traumas that most adults couldn’t shoulder.
In order to best serve this high-needs population, Swagerty knew changes had to be made in the school’s approach to learning. She oversaw the school’s switch to the progressive model beginning with the 2016-17 school year, and even served as a guest blogger on Extra Credit detailing the change. Among other charter schools throughout the state, New Beginnings Family Academy stands out as the state’s first and only progressive school, employing emotionally responsive practices into each and every classroom. Under this model, NBFA employs a host of strategies meant to meet the vast social and emotional needs of their students, in addition to academic learning. Uniforms are optional, while classroom instruction includes a lot of project-based learning with students taking an active role in how they learn.
At NBFA, you won’t always see chairs and desks in straight lines all facing toward the instructor. Commonplace, however, are small groups and even individual pairings inside each classroom, where students are able to learn in the way that best suits their needs. This flexible approach to learning is a hallmark of the charter movement in our state, but is especially evident at a school like NBFA. According to Swagerty, the strategies and techniques they’ve put in place have "transformed the culture and climate" of the school.
"When I took over, we had 194 suspensions that year," Swagerty says. "I thought, my God is that why I took this position? To suspend kids all day and every day?" Since making the change, NBFA has seen a dramatic decrease in those suspension numbers.
Last year? That number was down to two.
"We don’t teach past the issues. We embrace the issues. It sometimes slows down teaching in the moment, but it’s better for the individual child in the long run," Swagerty says.
School Choice = Parent Choice
Quite often, public schools of choice are to low-income families what private schools are to more affluent families, Swagerty says, adding that she loves the fact that charters give low-income families the option to "make smart decisions about what’s best for their children."
In terms of just who is making that choice, an overwhelming number of African-American families support school choice, including charters. A 2016 survey showed that 88 percent of low-income families in the U.S. supported having a charter option in their neighborhoods, and that specifically, 82 percent of African-American parents support school choice as a right for families, regardless of where they live. And a 2015 Stanford University study cited by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed that low-income Black students in charter schools gain the equivalent of 29 extra days of learning in reading and 36 extra days of learning in math per year compared with their Black counterparts in traditional district schools.
At NBFA, Swagerty says that power of choice is being exercised not only by Black families, but Latinx, Asian and white families alike.
"Although we still serve a predominantly African-American community, our Hispanic population has increased so much, and so has our population of white, Asian, you name it," Swagerty says. "We’re also seeing a lot more immigrants of different ethnicities come through the building. School choice is about parents choosing what’s right for their children, regardless of their race or ethnicity."
If We Can Do It, You Can Do It
In reflecting that increasingly diverse community, Swagerty says she hires strategically throughout the school building, recognizing the importance of having leaders in place who represent the families that they serve. In addition to a number of African-American men and women in leadership positions, Swagerty notes that at NBFA, children see school leadership who are Polish, African, Jamaican, Puerto Rican and much much more.
"Kids need to look up and see people who look like them and to whom they can relate," she says.
Swagerty says that while students haven’t necessarily told her this in so many words, she recognizes that her position as CEO, both as a woman of color and as someone whose background is not all that unlike theirs, sends a powerful message to her students. She notes that the students are very familiar with her story because she’s shared it with them many times -- that she was born to a teenage mother in the Bronx and grew up experiencing poverty like many of the students she serves. And even without the type of support network NBFA offers, she still went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued a career in journalism for several years before entering the world of educational leadership.
Swagerty says, "I’m not the smartest bulb in the pack. I never tested exemplary on state standardized exams. But I worked my tail off. And if you work your tail off, you can do this too, if that’s your desire."
Affirming Who You Are and Where You’re From
At NBFA, each student is recognized as an individual with their own story that is wholly unique and that has an impact on his or her learning capacity. And that’s what makes this school different and highly desirable for so many families.
"New Beginnings is for a lot of families an opportunity to put their child somewhere where they know that they’re going to be valued for their culture, where they’re going to be affirmed -- even for where they live, which is not a common thing no matter where you go," Swagerty says.
Most NBFA students are Black and/or brown, and hail from Bridgeport -- one of the largest and poorest cities in the state. But you won’t hear negative talk about Bridgeport or the multitude of cultures found in it anywhere within the halls of New Beginnings Family Academy. Instead, Swagerty says students are given a sense of pride about their community and are encouraged to celebrate their diverse cultures. This sense of affirmation takes on many forms, whether it’s through walking trips through the community, or welcoming family members into the school to share and demonstrate cultural traditions and customs with the students.
"That says to a child 'Wow, I never looked at mommy or auntie or grandma or abuela in that way before. I didn’t know she was so smart. Or that her sweet potato pie meant so much.' But when you have a family member come in and start talking about sweet potato pies and actually making one in the classroom, a child is feeling so affirmed culturally," Swagerty notes.
She adds, "When a child takes a walking field trip around their neighborhood that’s supposed to be so 'dangerous' and they are feeling safe with their group of colleagues and peers, that does wonderful things to that child’s self esteem. And you get that here at NBFA. We affirm the child. We affirm where they’re from."
Potential for Greatness
Altogether, NBFA’s innovative ways of teaching the whole child and addressing their social-emotional needs speaks life into not only the children, but into the communities they come from. When children feel culturally affirmed and valued for who they are and where they’ve come from, Swagerty says they begin to sense not only their value, but the value of their communities.
"It changes a child’s whole outlook," she says. "So what we expect to see over time is not to see kids fleeing Bridgeport, but recognizing that Bridgeport has some improvements to make and coming back to help make them because they haven’t been made to feel that their community is hopeless."
And that affirmation doesn’t stop once an NBFA student graduates and goes onto high school. Swagerty says they regularly keep in touch with their alumni and their families, even hiring former students once they’ve finished high school or college, or are home in-between breaks.
Swagerty says, "Every child here, no matter how weak or how strong, has the potential to be somebody great."
Fun Fact: Ronelle Swagerty isn't just the CEO... she's also an NBFA parent! Here she is with her son Rudy, a 4th grader at the school!
"Making Black History Today: Ebony Green, Elmwood Village Charter School" Buffalo via Extra Credit
"Making Black History Today: At Booker T. Washington Academy, the Uncommon is Common" via Extra Credit
"Whether Families Choose Diversity or Cultural Affirmation, Charters Meet Their Needs" via Education Post