The founders of South Bronx Community Charter High School are trying to do something a little different.
Most of New York City’s charter schools don’t serve high schoolers; theirs will. Many charter schools set to open next year are part of charter networks like Success Academy; theirs is connected to a group of district schools. And most founders lead schools solo or in pairs, while the three of them plan to run the school together.
Those leaders — Harvey Chism, John Clemente, and Natalie Ferrell — are taking that unconventional approach to tackle the challenge of helping more black and Hispanic students graduate from high school.
A fellowship through the education department’s Expanded Success Initiative, part of a citywide initiative to improve the lives of young men of color, allowed them (and others) to spend time developing their ideas. Those became the framework of three district high schools that opened in 2014, and after helping those schools get off the ground, Ferrell, Chism, and Clemente are turning their attention to a charter school.
Chalkbeat sat down with the trio to discuss their difficult path to approval, the importance of school rituals, and their belief that there is still plenty more room for charter schools in New York City. Below is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
Chalkbeat: First, why the South Bronx?
Ferrell: The South Bronx has always been at the top of the list for us in terms of a community that has really high need. There was a recent report that we were very upset by. It was looking at high school graduation rates across the city. There are pockets of areas across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens where there are lower rates, but the Bronx — all of those districts are among the lowest performing.
We heard from a lot of families saying they are in need of more options, and at the point in which we opened up the district schools, there were no new district high schools [slated to open].
Clemente: Also because of the unique challenges with student populations there. There’s a large number of English language learners, recently arrived immigrants, a large number of special education students. Those are populations that historically the charter sector hasn’t served with as robust supports. That’s also something we were keen to focus on.
Chalkbeat: What kinds of challenges, if any, did your team face with submitting a letter of intent for the charter school?
Clemente: We stumbled right out of the gate; we tripped right on our face.
We had done a year’s worth of work working with young people as part of our fellowship. Every week we met with young people. Natalie met with young people from the Bronx at Eagle Academy and I was working with some young people also living in the Bronx but going to school in Manhattan. Harvey was working with young people out in Brooklyn and Queens.
Chalkbeat: What kind of work was this? Talking to young people about their schooling experiences?
Clemente: It was that, and it was testing every idea that we had against them. It was like, ‘We think we’re so smart and we came up with these ideas of what makes a good [class] project,’ and they were like, ‘OK, let’s see about that.’ Students took those ideas and they surveyed their classmates about it. Students’ honesty with us helped us check ourselves.
We had done this work with young people over the course of a year. We were like, we know our community and we know what they need, and for this letter of intent, this is more of just a formality.
And an hour before our board meeting we got notice that our letter of intent was indeed rejected — that in fact we had not done the work in the community that we needed to do. My reaction was, ‘This is a rigged system! This is set up! They’re trying to make us fail!’ Harvey and Natalie calmed me down and we talked it out. And we took a critical eye to what we had presented and in fact we hadn’t done some of the things they wanted us to do in terms of engaging the community.
The were looking to make sure that the particular community, the neighborhoods, that folks had been invited to talk with us about the school or that there was an explicit mention of what we were trying to do with the young people and their families there. We recognized that that’s a really good idea.
So we had a really difficult conversation with our board that evening where we owned our shortcomings in that regard but we said that we would submit a letter of intent at the next opportunity and that we hoped they would stay with us, and they all did. Then we put our noses down. We went out to schools and we surveyed students, and we went to community meetings and we talked with parents and we went to the community education council and we spoke with them. It was a valuable experience. It was a learning experience for us.
Ferrell: We resubmitted early summer, and got word midsummer that we were going to have a month to write our application.
Clemente: My takeaway from that process is that they really want the people that they provide charters to are really prepared for the work — prepared to really provide the necessary supports to young people, to be able to engage parents, and that the communities they are serving are welcoming of that. When you think about all three of those things, those are all difficult things to do at once.
Chism, Clemente, and Ferrell say they will track student progress along “competencies” that mark their personal, academic, and professional growth. Students will take traditionally structured classes but also work on long-term projects, and learning coaches, or non-educators hired from the surrounding community, will play a role helping students stay on track. In weekly “Rites of Passage” programs, single-sex groups of students meet with adults who will work with them throughout their four years.
Clemente: The single gender programming we do with Rites of Passage was built in partnership with The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. It’s based on the work they’ve been doing for the last 20 years. It’s also one of the ways we recognize over time that, even though our charge when we came together was focusing on young men of color, we recognize that that particular strategy or approach allowed us to do gender-specific work — not just with our male students but also with our female students. And there’s a great need on that side as well.
That book “Pushout” was recently published about the struggles of some of our young women of color have, [and that] are equally important for us to recognize. And it’s been folded into the work we’ve been doing.
Chism: Those kinds of conversations that will be happening in our Rites of Passages program aren’t just relegated to those spaces, because we have a staff facilitating those conversations, and that can now make its way into a classroom.
Chalkbeat: Why did you think the best form or method for your idea was a charter school?
Clemente: There’s space for the voice we are bringing in the charter sector … There has been growth in the charter and district sector in terms of how we service special populations, and we are excited to contribute a voice to that conversation about how we personalize learning.
There’s a lot of competition and criticism that goes around. We try to not engage in that because there are things to be learned from people in different spaces.
Ferrell: One of the things we heard all the time, talking to young people and families both across the city and the Bronx, was this reaction to punitive discipline policies that have affected their lives. We talked a lot to out-of-school youth, people between the ages of 16 and 24 who had essentially been pushed out of school. And I know there has been a lot of press around that on the charter side — it happens in charters and district schools, where discipline systems are extremely punitive and staff aren’t trained to think about a different way of working with young people.
“Restorative justice” gets thrown around a lot, but I think at the core of it is this idea of both a lot of support but also accountability to a community. When you create a space that students love and feel like they belong to, they feel a sense of accountability to that community.