Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

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

Instead of teaching a standardized curriculum to students with varying levels of enthusiasm for school and a wide range of goals, Bronx Guild implements what it calls "project-based learning," where each student works with his or her crew leader to develop a multiple-subject project or several small projects for the semester, based on his or her interests.

Crew leader Priya Linson has a student who loves clothes and fashion, so Linson helped her develop a project centered on that passion. The end product will be a fashion show, but to get there, the girl will study fashion history, design her own clothes, learn how to sew, and write a business plan for opening her own store. With that one project, the student will earn credits for history, art, home economics, math, and writing. Linson believes that involving the students in the development of their own coursework is the best way to get most young people to learn. That way, they will be more engaged and retain more of what they learned.


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.

By early December,Evelyn is working on her final science and math credits. She leaves Lee and Vazquez's class every Tuesday at 11 a.m. for her Living and Environment class with Marge Whitehead to work on research paper bibliographies. Whitehead's assignment for the students for the past two months has been to pick a favorite animal to research. The class has taken several field trips to the Bronx Zoo for behind-the-scenes tours with the zookeepers. This week, they will visit the zoo again to measure the exhibits so they can create scale models of exhibits for their chosen animal in its natural habitat. The project incorporates math for creating the models, science for doing the research on the animals, and writing for the final research paper.

Whitehead is still considered a crew leader, though she doesn't have a crew. Any students who need the Living and Environment credit are assigned to her class on various days of the week, and she has students from all four grades in the same class. In addition to the age range, there's also a range in reading level and English proficiency. One student that Whitehead points out is in special-education classes and classified as ELL—English Language Learner. Because Whitehead has a small class size—no more than 10 students in each class—she can customize the research projects to each student's abilities. She tailors the required paper length to fit their reading and writing level, not to their grade level. "Even though it looks like chaos," she says, "they actually learn and actually come up with a final product."

When Whitehead leaves the room to find some missing students, Evelyn, Elisa, Jasmine, and another friend, "Wolfie," start talking about Evelyn's new boyfriend, Ben, who also happens to be Whitehead's 24-year-old son. He had accompanied the class on last week's zoo field trip. He and Evelyn flirted with each other most of the day and then shared a kiss in the monkey house before Evelyn left to board the bus back to school.


As Whitehead returns to the classroom, the four friends switch topics and talk to each other about their animals. Evelyn has chosen the panda and urges Whitehead to organize a class trip to Washington, D.C., to see the pandas at the National Zoo. She also wants the class to adopt a panda. Whitehead entertains the idea, talking about the logistics of getting to Washington, the cost of the train versus the bus, and then changes the subject as she puts a tape in the VCR. It's December 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Whitehead reminds them.

"This video isn't science," Whitehead says, "but since it's the anniversary, we'll watch this actual footage until the others show up." Evelyn and her friends tease Whitehead about showing the video. "Jesus Christ, Marge," Evelyn says, "this is science class."

But Whitehead persists, telling them that Pearl Harbor will probably show up on the Regents exam so she wanted to mention it. While they protest, they still seem interested. "Didn't the United States get their butts beat by Japan?" That's Evelyn, who has either decided she's interested in the video or wants to humor Whitehead.

Like Evelyn's homeroom, Whitehead's classroom doesn't fit the traditional schoolroom model. The students sit in red chairs around four rectangular tables pushed together in the center of the room, making one large conference-room-style table. While they all share snacks of peanut butter cookies, sandwiches, and popcorn, Whitehead explains how to do a research paper bibliography. Still not entirely focused, they don't give her their full attention. "I don't do this whole-classroom stuff very often so when I do, I expect you to pay attention," she scolds. They respond by taking out the books they have used to research their animals.

The Stevenson campus has just one library for the entire building, so teachers in Bronx Guild and the other small schools have to make appointments to take their students to the library. But Whitehead finds it easier to bring in books herself. Some are materials she accumulated while working for Rigby, an educational publishing company; others she buys with her own money. This bothers Evelyn, who doesn't think Whitehead should have to pay for books herself: "Marge, you've got to learn to say 'no,' " she tells her teacher, and then writes "NO" in large block letters on a piece of paper and hands it to Whitehead as a reminder.

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