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Creating Safe Havens for the Neediest Students

Dear Deborah,

I want to continue on the theme of how schools can work under the constraints they face to make a difference for the students they serve. Some of the educators I work with dismiss the success of schools like Brockton High School and Mission Hill because they claim such schools don't serve the neediest students; those that sociologist William Julius Wilson described as the "truly disadvantaged."

I know there is some truth to that assertion. I spend a great deal of time working with schools that serve what we might euphemistically describe as "high need" students. It's not simply that they may have learning disabilities or come from homes where English is not the language spoken. The learning challenges they face are compounded by an intractable combination of hardships such as a lack of stable housing or inadequate home support. Schools that serve large numbers of children with severe behavior problems that are rooted in a history of abuse and neglect, or children whose parents are in prison, or who are being raised by sick and tired grandparents, are often overwhelmed by their needs. These children aren't typically part of the lottery pools for admission to charter schools. There also aren't many of them at Brockton High School or at Mission Hill either.

It's important to acknowledge that such children tend to be concentrated in the poorest communities, and the schools that serve large numbers of them face extreme challenges. Many of these schools are labeled as "failing" due to low student test scores, a lack of safety, and other chronic problems. Should we be surprised? Anyone who spends time in such schools realizes that in most cases they lack the resources and personnel to meet the needs of their students. I would argue that these schools were designed to fail, and simply closing them down is not a solution unless a more effective strategy for meeting students' needs can be found.

However, occasionally some of these schools manage to find ways to serve their students well, despite the enormous challenges they face. I won't go so far as to suggest that they succeed in conventional terms, but when they are staffed by strong, visionary principals and dedicated teachers they can do a far better job at meeting the needs of their students.

I was at such a school last week: the Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service (BHSLCS). It is a transfer school designed to serve students who have been kicked out of other schools. Many of their students are over age and under-credited, meaning they might be 17 but have the credit accumulation of a 9th grader. BHSLCS shares space with a middle school that was recently identified by the New York Post as one of the most dangerous schools in New York City. Ironically, it is called the Peace Academy, but the Post article neglected to mention that the school had been assigned four different principals in the last four years. Despite the challenges that arise from sharing space with an unstable and often chaotic middle school, BHSLCS is a sanctuary that provides its "high need" students with a supportive community and a safe place to learn.

During my visit the school principal, Georgia Kouriampalis, asked me to meet with six students who shared their stories with me. They told me how they ended up at this school, and each one described a young life filled with hardship and adversity. One student explained that he had been homeless for two years and lived in the stairwells of the projects where he grew up. Another told me he stopped going to school because he was teased by students and teachers at his former school due to his obesity. Still another confided that she had been working as a prostitute in the nights to support her mother and disabled younger brother. Despite the severity of the hardships they faced, each student ended their story with a silver lining. The students reported that they were finally in a school that offered them support, safety, and stability. The formerly homeless student was recently honored at an event by the New York Department of Education for his improved academic achievement; the obese student said he has lost more than 200 pounds since, and since enrolling at the school his physical education teacher has become his personal trainer. Each student was still coping with hardships, but over and over they described how fortunate it was for them to be in a school that provided them with a safe haven.

Schools like this one are providing much more than an education for the students they serve. They create supportive communities that give students the safety and stability they desperately need and make it possible for them to focus on learning. Schools like BHSLCS should be commended and used as a model for similar schools. Imagine how much more they might be able to do if they had support from social service and healthcare providers? What impresses me most about BHSLCS is that the staff does not complain about who they serve nor do they blame their students for the challenges they face. Instead, they concentrate their efforts on finding the best ways to meet their needs.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Pedro

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