'To Raise a Village'

Education for the Community

By Gregory Tewksbury and Abby Scher

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 216 cover

The investment banker paces in front of an economics class at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn looking dapper in an orange tie and grey suit. He covers the marker board with names—Nike, the Gap, various nations—and a confusing array of arrows. We are witnessing an inspirational lecture on ethics and the power of individual action. "Hard choices," he says, over and over. The students must make "hard choices." His rainfall of words can't quite fasten on the hard choices he has made as both a Black Muslim and junior banker at Kidder Peabody, although that's part of what economics teacher Hector Calderon asked him to discuss—what ethical quandaries does he face by working on Wall Street?

Suddenly, it's time for questions, and the restless students, all black or Latino, pull the speaker back from his airy abstractions and bootstrap sentiments. When the banker asks what they can do about Nike sweatshops in Indonesia, one young man suggests, "Work together for better labor laws." No, that's not what the banker was getting at—how about choosing not to buy Nike sneakers? A young woman counters, "Won't a boycott cost the workers their jobs?"

This provocative question—a true ethical quandary—seems to push the banker further than he expected and the discussion fades. Chances are he's never encountered students like these. They are urban public school students, yet they are not dulled or dumbed down; they question issues at a level many college teachers yearn for. What kind of school reform creates this kind of learning? What molds were broken? What resources were found?

El Puente means "the bridge" in Spanish, and the school is housed in an old church building tucked beneath the shadow of the bridge linking Williamsburg's crowded tenements to the highrises of Manhattan. But the bridge the four-year-old El Puente Academy is creating is between an old model of schooling and a new "community-centered" one that places its faith in the talents and organizations of New York neighborhoods. El Puente's founders—along with those of the brand new Cypress Hills Community School in East New York, among others—reject the belief of mainstream reformers that the main responsibility of schooling is to promote individual achievement, or to prepare urban youth for their place in the job market. In struggling cities, these radical educators contend, schools must do more. They must form an educational and organizing base from which to revitalize an entire community.

"Schools should be part of a strategy of social change," argues Pedro Pedraza of Hunter College's Centro de Estudio Puertorrique¤os, a supporter of the "community-centered" movement. "We are trying to meld the best of progressive education with a real community perspective."

El Puente Academy and Cypress Hills are two of 40 schools founded during a five-year span of innovation initiated in 1992 by then-Chancellor Joseph Fernandez and the New Visions Foundation. Fernandez invited those outside the educational establishment—especially community groups, but also parents, unions, and groups of teachers—to start public schools as a way to reform the $8.85 billion city system. El Puente was a 12-year-old youth organization before it founded a school. Yet not all of the new small schools thus founded are progressive—some are cosponsored, not by New Visions, but by a wing of the conservative Manhattan Institute. And only about a dozen approach El Puente's commitment to community development. Still, none are magnet schools, pulling the most dedicated students out of their communities, nor are they schools that track the best students into separate classes. They are schools determined to educate a range of students together.

In many ways, New Visions follows the model of New York's pioneering generation of alternative schools identified with the national Coalition of Essential Schools. Central Park East in Harlem, founded by Deborah Meier, is probably the best known among them. These schools revitalized education by keeping classes small and empowering teachers to innovate and help run the school. They challenged the old factory model of schooling that saw big as better. Since the 1950s, big schools have been seen as efficient schools because they educate a greater number of students and allow for a range of courses to be taught in a single setting. This model—still the norm for schools throughout the country—depends on a strict division of labor between principals and teachers, and on strict hierarchies of students who are tracked via standardized tests.

Drawing on insights from alternative programs originally devised for the "gifted" or for dropouts, Meier and other innovators found that teachers teach better when administrators relinquish a tight grip on the reigns of power and when resources marked for administration are redirected to pay for extra teachers. Committed teachers rise to the challenge when given more respect, more responsibility and more freedom to devise innovative, "inquiry-based" curricula. Students, meanwhile, feel more of a stake in their schooling when schools are small and tracking dismantled. They stay in school. This makes small schools cost effective—unlike, for example, the factory schools in the Bronx, which, because of their astronomical dropout rates, manage to spend more than $88,000 over four years to produce each graduate!

Most models and visions of school reform do not go far enough. They ignore the context in which schools operate, and the way school problems are connected to the lives of teachers, students and parents. "This is one area where Debbie Meier was weak," says Pedraza of El Centro. "She built community within the school building. We have to see the value in community outside the walls of the schools." Community-centered reformers say principals and teachers must open schools to—and nurture the widest possible talents of—the people and organizations of the neighborhoods.

Most schools see their role as helping the most accomplished students become successful and leave their communities behind, explains Calderon, the social science teacher. But he asks, "If everyone is fleeing the community, then what happens to the community?" Quoting the founder of El Puente, Luis Garden Acosta, he adds: "If it takes a village to raise a child, then why not raise a village?"

The bootstrap model of individual achievement has a surreal quality in a bleak urban labor market where young adults and experienced workers alike have a hard time finding jobs. Unemployment tops 40% in some New York neighborhoods, and 59% of Williamsburg's kids live below the poverty line. Almost 90% of El Puente's students are eligible for school lunches. Still, as Academy Director Frances Lucerna notes, much creative power remains untapped. She and her husband Garden Acosta recognized Hector Calderon's talents after he and other students organized a building takeover to protest budget cuts at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1991. They hired Calderon, a determined popular educator raised in the Dominican Republic and the Bronx, as a tutor in El Puente's after school program. Calderon's innovations eventually helped lay the groundwork for the school.

"Young people seek purpose, to know the future depends on them. Our vision is to nurture and stimulate leadership, to nurture young people to a sense of mastery," says Lucerna, a former dancer who had directed the youth group's dance company. "Being an activist becomes part of you because something strikes you deep within the soul: Why do these unjust conditions exist?"

To truly educate, Calderon adds, teachers must respect what students bring to the school. They must view students not as "objects" waiting to be schooled, but as "subjects" with their own curiosity and ways of knowing. This philosophy, inspired in part by trends in adult education and the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, led El Puente to create its "hip hop" curriculum, teaching language, history, and the arts through rap and dance. The real issues of the community become the material of study. This is interdisciplinary learning as well, guiding students to learn about ecology by researching the highly toxic, lead-filled environment of Williamsburg through both science and social studies.

In good Freirian fashion, their classwork then becomes tied to action. El Puente's 120 students have run two vaccination drives, screened Williamsburg children for lead poisoning, operated a soup kitchen, organized against police brutality and for immigrant rights, planted trees, and organized cultural festivals for the community. Students recently drew on their own research to testify at a city hearing about a rezoning plan for the area. After the after-school program conducted a neighborhood survey to prepare for its own, soon-to-start economic development project—an open air market—students analyzed the survey results in math class.

"They get involved with community projects—it stays with them," observes Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization, which has worked in coalition with El Puente on a summer youth program and to oppose an incinerator project. "The school has had an extreme positive impact."

Contrary to the dogma that only skill-based, test-driven curricula achieve results, 28 out of the 33 students in El Puente's first graduating class last year went on to college. Most earned the state's highest diploma, the Regents, compared to only four out of more than 200 students graduating from a nearby factory school that was shut down due to parental pressure. Now El Puente wants its students to receive certification for their organizing experience on their diplomas through a consortium of nonprofits the school is pulling together—it would be a first for the high school level. Next it might create a post-graduate institute to ensure graduates "could still be part of the El Puente movement," could still receive support and give leadership back to the community. This has already started. Although they are now in college, "Trez" and other founding members of El Puente's hip hop group return to work with younger students. "El Puente is family," Trez explains simply.

Different Model of Community-centered Education

An elementary school founded by the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (LDC) in East New York is forming the community/school relationship a bit differently. The founders designed the Cypress Hills Community School with New York's first parent codirector to ensure parents remain centrally involved. The parent, Maria Vega, shares power equally with Sheryl Brown, an educational professional. While Vega is responsible for parent and community relations, Brown deals with the school bureaucracy. Both work on curriculum and policy issues with a governing council that includes parents, a teacher, and representatives of the Cypress Hills LDC.

To Vega, community-centered schooling means "to develop community awareness among our parents and among our residents." To achieve this, "all staff, including teachers, will be evaluated with student performance and the ability to create community inside the school and project it outside to the community." The school also recognizes the complex link between learning and language and tries to preserve that link for its Latino students with a "dual language" curriculum. All students learn partly in Spanish, whether they are native Spanish-speakers or not.

The school emerged out of a parents' movement in nearby P.S. 7 that received organizing support from the Cypress Hills LDC. "Building an affordable housing project seemed a lot more doable than improving the schools. Initially, we never really thought we'd be working in the schools," says Michelle Neugebauer, director of the Cypress Hills LDC, a nonprofit with a $2.9 million budget and 90 staff. The LDC was formed in 1983 to revitalize a commercial strip suffering from a mass exodus of middle class homeowners in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But, Neugebauer added, "from an organizing perspective we had to be involved in the schools."

"It's hard to get kids involved in positive youth development activities when they've been crushed down and can't read and write. We can't do what we want in youth services without it," she says. "We'd really like to funnel our kids from the day care to the New Visions schools, and then up into our youth activities. We want to build the future leadership of the community. That's our master plan. If we want to support people in the neighborhood controlling their own destiny, then this is the natural step."

Neugebauer further points out only 41% of the adults in East New York have high school diplomas, and the New York economy doesn't look kindly on unskilled labor. From 1970 to 1990 New York City lost more than 5 million jobs in the manufacturing sector, and the new service and clerical jobs only pay 60% of the wages. "From a homeowner's perspective, people are not going to stay if the schools are bad," she continued. After living in Cypress Hills only five years, most homeowners sell and move, creating an ever-changing stream of families coming through the neighborhood. "So from a community development perspective, how can you revitalize the community without the schools?"

The LDC, which already ran a Head Start program and a day care center, began by sponsoring enrichment programs in three elementary schools and an after-school program at the high school. They hired an organizer to develop independent parent leadership in the schools. Neugebauer says, "Parent involvement at the heart was being coached by the administration of the school to be fundraising—'let's do bake sales and candy drives'—not about teaching and curriculum."

Vega, an immigrant from Ecuador with two sons, became active in school affairs to stop her oldest son from being placed in special education classes at P.S. 7. She soon began battling overcrowding and bad teaching. Despite a supportive principal, Vega says, "I saw nothing changing. They [the teachers] always found a way to go around what the parents wanted, a missing form or something." The then-superintendent of the local school district—New York City has 32 of them—used a bodyguard to keep parents at bay and "played a lot of tricks" to evade meetings. Finally, a large group of parents spread out on stairways in the district building determined to catch him—and forced him to meet.

That superintendent is gone, and the new one is more supportive of the reform agenda of Vega, the Cypress Hills LDC and New Visions. Yet the original plan was not to start a new school but to reorganize P.S. 7 into a New Visions school. When its teachers discovered the full depth of the reform agenda at an orientation session—Vega recalls a New Visions representative proclaiming, "What we need are schools to challenge the corrupt patronage model of politicians!"—the teachers from P.S. 7 became concerned for their jobs and decided not to reorganize. "So I said to Michelle [Neugebauer], why don't we apply?" recalls Vega. And the active parents of P.S. 7 and the Cypress Hills LDC started their own school.

Barriers on the Bridges to Reform

A Parent Activist

On a wintry Monday morning, Marjorie Suarez sits in back of a Cypress Hills Community School classroom where she volunteers, quietly discussing how she became a parent activist. As a teacher arranges an energetic crowd of children into a circle behind her, Suarez remembers her own schooling in Queens. "It gives me, not the anger but the passion" to try to change city schools for her daughter Marisol, a second grader. "They just put me in the corner with the other bad kids," she recalls. "I think teachers should be held accountable for that."

"I didn't even think about college because I thought that was for smart people and I didn't consider myself smart." Her last year of high school, "a counselor said college isn't just for smart people; it's to find out what you want to do. She helped me with my application and I got into a good program. That's why it's so important. These teachers never told me."

"I see with the other children [at Cypress Hills] there are psychological issues they're going through," she continues. "So how is my daughter to learn? That's why it's so important for parents to become involved because of the problems that come from home. ... With a community school it's a family environment. So it's a great opportunity for mothers if their child has behavior problems. We can show her what the community has, make her feel at home. That's why the linkage between family, community and school is so clear." Eventually, says Suarez, a social service coordinator for the Cypress Hills LDC head start program, the LDC can raise money for English language classes, high school equivalency classes in Spanish, or any other program parents decide they need.

For Suarez, who serves on the school governing council, it's as important for parents to influence the curriculum as for the school to support parents. She'd like to see the shelves of this school bursting with books on "divorce, single parents, homosexuality—[so the kids know] you'll be OK if those things happen." The children are not too young to be challenged to think—Suarez transferred Marisol from a "gifted" program because it was all rote learning. "I'm afraid," Suarez continues. "What does democracy mean, what does voting mean? I want my daughter to be questioning those things and not just accept them."

In September 1997, the Cypress Hills Community School opened with 54 students in four grades and class sizes of no more than 20 students. It is slated to add a grade each year until it reaches the 8th grade. But as Vega's story shows, starting a new school, especially an innovative one sinking deep roots in the community, is not easy in New York City. School Chancellor Rudy Crew, unlike his predecessors, seems less concerned with promoting innovation than surrounding himself with old-style politicos. His idea of planning for the 20,000 extra students entering the city system each year seems limited to trying to force the 150 successful small schools to increase in size. He is making no move to expand the number of those schools, which educate only 100,000 of the city's 1.1 million students. An autonomous "Learning Zone,"—a crucial reform creating a special district of schools free from bureaucratic regulations with the power to direct their own budgets—is stalled and all but forgotten.

But the difficulty goes much deeper than that. In poor communities, schools are major employers that bring important economic and social resources into neighborhoods. The benefits get siphoned off, not just to teachers, but to those few tied to local political elites. Local politicians "look at the public schools for jobs... and for patronage," says Mildred Tudy, a former public school teacher and longtime Williamsburg activist. Some clerical and paraprofessional staff have their jobs because they are linked to local politicians. In November, the East New York school board—the very board overseeing Cypress Hills—endorsed the hiring of a woman as a lunchroom aide, a woman who happened to be the mother of one board member and the wife of the Democratic district leader. (A law aimed at preventing patronage hires of close relatives forced the board to vote on the matter.) In another notorious case, a South Bronx school board president had no visible means of support—except political fundraising parties for which principals and teachers illegally sold tickets. As one activist put it, school boards are "the [Democratic Party] club incubators for the politicians of the future." Until recently the boards appointed the superintendents, ensuring they were political animals who would hire a supporter when called upon. Principals are forced to be political animals too, winning their jobs by attending fundraising events and shmoozing with the pols.

These unavoidable political connections make it hard to dislodge a bad principal even if a school is failing. So far the Chancellor has made little use of a 1996 state law giving him the power to remove a superintendent or a principal. Nor has he encouraged the formation of parent councils, another anti-patronage reform coming out of the statehouse.

Struggle, Savvy and Survival

Facing a patronage-bound system where the education of children is secondary, many parents lose hope that they can battle it all: inequitable funding, budget cuts, self-protective unions. It is easy to see why many working class families and communities of color are ready to give up on public education. Both El Puente and Cypress Hills had the requisite political savvy to counter that defeatism and transform the way their schools are linked to the political and economic powers-that-be.

"Through the years of our involvement of doing politics with the local board, we gained respect from them," recalls Vega. "That prepared the ground." The youth group El Puente won respect and power when its young members helped stop the expansion of a municipal incinerator. El Puente's founder, Garden Acosta, is a former administrator of a local hospital who in his youth was a member of the Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican group similar to the Black Panthers. Garden Acosta has "juice." But the school remains politically viable as much because of its ties outside of the neighborhood as within it, receiving recognition from both the Children's Defense Fund—Hillary Clinton's favorite charity—and a conference held at Columbia Teacher's College in December. And both Cypress Hills and El Puente depend on the support of Congresswoman Nydia Valazquez, one of Brooklyn's more progressive politicians, as well as the political momentum supplied by the Latino Network, a city-wide educational/political alliance of New Visions schools.

Of course, the political minefield doesn't just disappear once community groups manage to open a school. El Puente and Cypress Hills desperately need the school district to cut loose funds for them to find permanent homes for their schools. And shifting from advocacy to service provision can make a community organization vulnerable. They begin to need the very politicians they are organizing against. ACORN, the national community organizing group cosponsoring six city schools, learned this after some of its parent/members booed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at a press conference last year. "Guiliani just pulled a contract from ACORN for a mutual housing development," a school organizer said. "That just shows you the vulnerabilities... You have to play ball."

Despite the realpolitik underlying their operation, schools endure as a repository of the American dream. We all know the story: If you work hard and follow the rules (raise your hand before you speak or go to the bathroom), then you too will be successful. Most schools reinforce our belief in a meritocratic order and our deeply individualistic notion of justice—those with merit succeed and those who don't have only themselves or their families to blame. It's a kind of ideological glue holding the whole, unjust, system together.

City schools sort out the Elect and leave the rest to fend for themselves in a Darwinian landscape. In the midst of this crisis, a few schools in New York City have figured out a way to educate all students and transform their communities at the same time. Their success challenges us to ask ourselves, as Garden Acosta has, "Bottom line: whose interests do we serve? Whose world view are we nurturing and supporting?... And what are we willing to do?" n

Gregory Tewksbury teaches writing and education at the New School for Social Research in New York and, through New Visions for Public Schools, advised Cypress Hills and other groups starting public schools. Abby Scher is co-editor of Dollars & Sense and a sociologist.

Resources: Pedro Pedraza "Puerto Ricans and the Politics of Pedagogy and School Reform," El Centro magazine (vol. 9, no. 9, 1997); Glenn Thrush, "Matronage in Brooklyn," City Limits (January 1998).
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