Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

The journey of one high school senior through the small-school experiment of America's most generous philanthropist

Called Expeditionary Week, this "torture," as some students refer to it, forms an essential part of the Bronx Guild experience, designed to boost self-confidence and help students build trust in themselves and in their classmates and teachers. Each fall, two Outward Bound instructors teach the crew of teachers and first-year students how to cook outside, pitch tarps, purify stream water, and use compasses. Each day, the students take turns as "Navigator," reading the topographical maps and leading the crew to the next destination. At night they work on improving communication skills during Evening Circle, where, as Evelyn later described it, "we give each other props for the day."

The model continues when the students and teachers return to the Bronx Guild. The school takes up the north wing on the fourth floor of Adlai E. Stevenson High School. Four blocks long, the campus is surrounded by single- and two-family townhouses and high- rise apartment buildings just off White Plains Road, a barren thoroughfare with strip malls and a handful of major chain stores like Old

Navy, Conway, Kmart, and Blockbuster. The closest subway station, the No. 6 line's Park-chester stop, is just over a mile away, so many students take the bus. The school, now housing three other small high schools in addition to Bronx Guild, has nearly 3,000 students and notoriously high crime rates, 84 percent higher than the average crime rate of schools its size in New York City. Inside, school aides check identification and school safety agents monitor students as they pass through the metal detector in the dimly lit lobby.

Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.


See also:
Lost and Found in the Chalkboard Jungle
A Bronx kid's year in the Bill Gates experiment
Photo Slideshow

But on the fourth floor in the building's north wing, the Bronx Guild has created an atmosphere modeled more on the Outward Bound expedition than a traditional high school. Signs hanging in the hallway of the school read, "Welcome to the Bronx Guild. We are crew, not passengers." Teachers aren't called teachers. They are "crew leaders." And "co-directors," not principals or vice principals, make up the school's administrative staff. Students call all of the Bronx Guild faculty by their first names.

The school's structure also mirrors the Outward Bound model. Each crew leader has a crew of 10 to 15 students. The crew leader serves as teacher, adviser, and mentor to that group, and in theory, each student should have the same crew leader all four years. Two crew leaders, with their 15-member crews, share a classroom. In traditional school-speak, each classroom, which functions as the students' homeroom, has two teachers and no more than 30 students.

The Bronx Guild staff watches the students become more self-reliant, appreciative, and confident on the wilderness trips. And the misery the students go through together usually strengthens their bond. But for Evelyn, it seemed that everyone in her crew had decided to hate her from the very beginning—in part, she thought, because her combination of Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican heritage gives her a lighter complexion than everyone else. "Even though," she said one fall day, pointing to the other students, "you can see this is a very multicultural population."

After returning to school after the backpacking trip, Evelyn continued to struggle through her first year, frustrating her father and her teachers. But then, sometime toward the end of her second year at Bronx Guild, Evelyn began to mature. Her teachers noticed she was paying more attention in class, spending more time on her assignments and asking to earn extra credit. She had taken on a more responsible role at home too, helping to take care of her half sister, Victoria. She had decided she wanted to take school more seriously.

Once her father's girlfriend, Tina, and her son, Ethan, moved in, and after Evelyn's half sister was born, the family size had doubled from a year earlier. Her resentment over her mother leaving began to fade. With her father working long hours at Newark airport and Tina distancing herself from the family, Evelyn found herself serving as the household's primary caregiver. It was a lot for a teenage girl to handle, but she started to feel more control over her life in the routine she established: Every morning, she changed and fed Victoria; got Mark and Ethan ready for school; cooked breakfast for the boys and herself; and then went to school. In the evenings, she would come home from work to find baby Victoria asleep on Tina's stomach on the couch. She'd gently put the baby in her crib and then make dinner for the family.

At school, Evelyn learned to ignore other classmates' comments and started to make a point of getting to know all the adults—not just her teachers, but the school aides, counselors, and the principal as well. She volun-teered in the office, answering phones, filing, and making photocopies. She then got an internship in the New York City Outward Bound office, where she interviewed and wrote an article about New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of Outward Bound's board of directors. She started to participate in more school activities and especially enjoyed the weekly poetry slams.

So when Evelyn came home that summer morning after her sophomore year to see her house burned down, she had already coped with her parents' divorce, her first major setback. This time, she did not want to stop talking to people or start fights. Instead, she promised herself, her father, and her teachers that she would work harder and become even more involved in school.

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