Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

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

The small-school model works for Whitehead, who thinks there's too much emphasis placed on standardization, which means that the policy makers don't understand or won't acknowledge that there are so many levels of ability in one classroom. Besides having more flexibility with the curriculum, the small school makes the crew leaders feel as if they can create more of a family atmosphere for the students. And the teachers think that atmosphere has made all the difference for Evelyn.

One of Evelyn's responsibilities is to run the senior committees that organize prom, graduation, and the senior trip. One afternoon in mid December, Evelyn, Elisa, and two other seniors stay after school to discuss who they should ask to speak at graduation. They all agree that they don't want any rap stars because they'll be a bad influence. They agree that they don't want President Bush either. They want someone who will inspire them. They mention Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. Evelyn reminds them they have to be realistic. Oprah isn't going to come to their tiny school in the Bronx. It's worth a try, one boy argues. "And maybe then she'll pay for everything," the boy says. Evelyn tells him he can write the letter to Oprah if he wants.

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
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Evelyn suggests New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., since she knows him from interviewing him two years earlier after her internship with New York City Outward Bound. Then they all remember that one woman—Jackie, they think—who came to visit the school once a couple of years ago. "That woman who stepped on my new white sneakers," Evelyn remembers. That's right, Jackie Kennedy, they say. They decide they want to ask her, but when they mention it to one of their teachers, they're reminded that Jackie Kennedy, of course, passed away. Her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, is the one who came to the school.

Although Evelyn and her friends have difficulty remembering who Caroline Kennedy is, Mayor Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein view her as a gift to New York's schools. As vice chair of the city's Fund for Public Schools, the department of education's nonprofit arm aimed at raising private-sector financial support, Kennedy had the name recognition and stature to influence local philanthropists to give millions of dollars to the city's public schools.

While private donations have allowed Bloomberg and Klein to launch a number of reform initiatives, including the opening of new small schools, the city still doesn't have the resources to provide new and separate buildings for each new school. So for now, most will continue to be housed within larger, older schools.

That model of schools within schools doesn't seem to bother the mayor, but differing approaches to education and feelings of "We were here first" have created tension and conflict among schools within the same campus.

During Bronx Guild's first year, Evelyn can remember fights between her classmates and students in Stevenson, which previously occupied the entire building. Stevenson students ripped off Bronx Guild posters and started fights with the newcomers.

If the Bronx Guild atmosphere seems somewhat chaotic and perhaps too easygoing, the Stevenson atmosphere seems combative. Eight school safety agents, or SSAs, monitor the Stevenson students leaving school every afternoon. The situation intensifies as SSAs and sometimes teachers and students yell at one another. Conflicts also develop between the SSAs and the small-school students. Because the Bronx Guild students enjoy more relaxed relationships with their crew leaders and co-directors, they seem to have trouble with the authority the SSAs have over them. Bronx Guild principal Soguero was arrested in 2005 when he tried to prevent an SSA from pulling one of his students out of class for refusing to show her identification after cursing in the school lobby. The charges were dropped against Soguero after parents and colleagues protested his arrest, but the incident created a lasting tension between Soguero's students and the SSAs.

Elisa, for instance, comes to class one morning in December with a cut on her lip after an argument with an SSA over a tape measure she had in her book bag set off the metal detectors. He took the tape measure away from her and then told her to leave the building when she started arguing with him. When she tried to come back in the lobby, she cut her lip on the door when the SSA pushed the swinging door toward her to keep her outside.

Some recent attempts to improve inter-school relations among the small schools have helped. The Stevenson campus principals meet every morning, and last year they created a Community for Unity, a campus-wide student leadership group. Signs in the Bronx Guild common area call for volunteers for double-Dutch contests and recreational basketball games with the other schools in the building, including the School for Community Research and Learning and the Pablo Neruda Academy for Architecture and World Studies. And since the small schools tend to have similar objectives in getting students to do internships, they can share resources. Evelyn likes that Pablo Neruda's internship bulletin board is close to the shared fourth-floor girls' bathroom so she can see what kinds of internships are posted there.

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