As Evelyn Cabrera, a senior at Bronx Guild High School, sits down in October 2005 to write a college application essay about a meaningful life experience, she stares at a blank page in her notebook, the one where she handwrites all of her essays before typing them up on a school computer. Standing five feet four inches tall, with a round face, gray-blue eyes and light freckles on her nose and cheekbones, she appears younger than her 17 years.
She wears jeans and a plain T-shirt, nothing fancy, but she does make one fashion statement: large gold and silver hoop earrings with “Eevee”—her nickname—filling in the center.
Evelyn struggles with the essay, but not because she doesn’t know what to write or because she isn’t motivated. It’s just that her mind wanders easily, from the prom to graduation to the senior trip—typical 17-year-old things that are much more fun to think about than the day her apartment building burned down.
But Evelyn has worked too hard over the past three years not to finish her college applications. She pulls her smooth, straight, almost waist-length dark-brown hair into a ponytail holder, scrunches over her desk, and forces herself to write.
There’s always a time in your life when something unspeakable happens. It may be as positive as a new birth to the family or as negative as a death. Whatever the case may be, everyone has been through a meaningful experience. My experience has been one that I’ll never forget.
Two years earlier, during the summer between her second and third years of high school, Evelyn had gone to her best friend Rubie’s house to spend the night. Around six o’clock the next morning, Rubie woke her up and handed her the phone. It was Ismael, her father. “You need to go home,” he told her. There had been a fire. Barely awake, she didn’t really believe him, so she rolled over and fell back asleep. But 30 minutes later, she sat up in bed and realized what her father had told her. Evelyn quickly threw her clothes back into her overnight bag and took the next bus to Morris Park, where her family lived. The 20-minute ride seemed to take forever, as she imagined what her home would look like and wondered if her stuffed animals and poetry book were ruined.
When she walked up to the building, Evelyn stared at the black and gray pile of rubble and ash. Only a skeletal frame remained of what had been a three-family building. No one had been hurt, but her younger brother, Mark, had been taken away in an ambulance and her father had gone to work, leaving Evelyn to be calmed down by the firefighters and neighbors. She forced her way into the house and the first thing she saw was a box of macaroni and cheese, the only thing in the kitchen that the flames hadn’t consumed. In her bedroom, which had been converted from a walk-in closet, all of her clothes, books, and stuffed animals had been destroyed. But Evelyn’s poetry book, like the box of macaroni and cheese, lay untouched on the floor. She grabbed it and ran back outside. She didn’t know what would happen next or where her family would live, but at least she had her poetry book.
Evelyn with Brian Ford, one of what Bronx Guild refers to as its “crew leaders”—a crucial element of the small-school experience.
After the fire, Evelyn and Mark went to live with their grandmother. Her father Ismael’s live-in girlfriend, Tina, took her son from a previous relationship and Evelyn’s one-year-old half sister, Victoria, and moved in with relatives. Her father moved to a studio apartment in New Jersey, though Evelyn’s still not sure exactly where.
Now, as Evelyn continues with her essay, she writes that even though the fire trucks had carried away her hopes and dreams, she resolved to keep working hard in school. She promised herself that she would get into a good college and study hotel management so she could someday open her own “big-time hotel,” as she described it.
Evelyn appears to have kept her resolution. She has maintained a B-plus average, been involved in several extracurricular activities, taken her SATs, passed her Regents exams, and is now finishing up her college applications. She has done everything right. It has been quite a feat considering not only her personal setbacks, but also the striking odds stacked up against New York City public high school students—less than half of whom graduate high school in four years, if at all. Of those, only one in four go on to college.
Politicians, education policy experts, teachers, and parents have been trying to improve the bleak outlook for the city’s schools for decades. School reform has focused on everything from teacher recruitment and training to experimenting with private school vouchers and after-school programs. Most recently, policy makers have shifted their attention to creating new, small high schools—another controversial approach. As others debate the best ways to raise high school graduation rates and send more students to college, students like Evelyn Cabrera go on with their daily lives and responsibilities, unknowingly serving as subjects in yet another educational experiment and unaware of their role as central figures in a growing citywide—indeed, nationwide—debate.
In February 2005, Bill Gates —the then 49-year-old founder and chairman of Microsoft Corporation, whose $50 billion net worth has enabled him to become the world’s most generous philanthropist—stepped to a podium to deliver the keynote address to a gathering of U.S. governors in Washington, D.C., for a two-day education summit. Although everyone in the room was already familiar with Gates’s passion for education reform, the force of his words took some by surprise.
“American high schools are obsolete,” Gates declared. “By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and underfunded—though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools—even when they are working exactly as designed—cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.”
Gates went on to address the dangers of an uneducated work force, warning that his and other major corporations would not hire young people without a college diploma. Making matters worse, Gates explained, was the racial disparity in public education, with students in middle- and upper-class and mostly white school districts studying Algebra II while students in low-income and mostly black or Hispanic districts learn how to balance a checkbook. He challenged the governors to devote more resources to high school reform, and specifically to create smaller high schools where students would receive more personal attention. Gates, after all, had been devoting his own time and money to improve the country’s high schools through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which over the last six years had given out over $1 billion in education grants.
In December 2000, Gates had turned his attention to the country’s largest and one of its most troubled urban school districts—New York City. Partnering with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute, he pledged $30 million over a five-year period to help New York City open 20 new small high schools. Instead of new buildings for these new schools, the education department would reduce enrollment in 10 larger, existing public high schools and place the new schools within the larger school buildings. These would be schools within schools.
But the way that money has actually reached students has confused teachers, parents, and administrators, with grants funneling through nonprofit organizations and requiring approval from the city’s department of education. Instead of giving the grant to the city’s education department, the Gates Foundation gave money directly to an independent group called the New Century High Schools Initiative, a project of New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City nonprofit organization that has been advocating for school reform since 1989. New Visions then invited educational organizations and teachers to submit proposals for new schools. One year later, in the summer of 2001, New Visions reviewed proposals and, in the fall, administered the grant money to fund the planning stage and implementation process for the proposed new schools. After getting the department of education’s approval, the schools could then recruit students and open their doors in the fall of 2002.
Evelyn with her mother, Debbie, after her graduation ceremony from Bronx Guild, held at the New York Botanical Garden this past June. Evelyn took a commemorative rose and distributed its petals to her friends, teachers, boyfriend, and aunt, and gave the stem and remaining petals to her mom.
Evelyn Cabrera’s school, the Bronx Guild in the Soundview neighborhood, was one of 12 that opened that year, the first group born of the New Century High Schools Initiative. During the 2005–2006 school year, Evelyn was one of 52 seniors—or “Destinations,” as the Bronx Guild calls them—in the school’s first graduating class, the class of 2006.
Since he signed his first grant check in December 2000, Gates has donated over $100 million more to New York City schools. With so much private money involved in school reform, some education policy experts, parents, and teachers criticize the city’s commitment to opening small schools, worrying about the fate of students stuck in the large, still-failing high schools and wondering about the level of public accountability the education department can have. Small-school proponents say the reform has to start somewhere, and argue that the department of education will be held more accountable when it receives private money. If the schools don’t do their job, they say, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (himself a billionaire) and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, will have a harder time soliciting more donations.
The views of corporate leaders, policy makers, and politicians aside, 267,000 students attend (or are at least supposed to be attending) public high school in New York City. They experience the short-term results of these policy debates each day. And when it comes time to decide whether the Bill Gates way is the right way to reform schools, policy makers might do well to consider the experience of one of Gates’s earliest beneficiaries—Evelyn Cabrera.
Before the fire, life was just beginning to become more stable for Evelyn at last, after years of conflict at home and school—all of which started when she was 13 and her parents divorced. At home, she would sit alone in her room. At her parochial middle school, she refused to talk to her teachers or her classmates. The year before, when she was in sev-enth grade, before her mother, Debbie, moved out of the house, she had been on the honor roll. But her grades dropped after she stopped turning in her homework assignments.
Evelyn had always known her parents had problems. For as long as she could remember, she had shared a bedroom with her mother while her brother, Mark, had shared a room with her father. But one day, Debbie announced she was leaving. She and Ismael had been high school sweethearts and had married young—too young, probably. They had no money even with her full-time job and the overtime he earned as a UPS driver. The stress was becoming too much for her, she told her husband. Ismael, soft-spoken with tired eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses and a round face and diminutive height equal to Evelyn’s, pleaded with her to stay. He couldn’t convince her, however, so she left—without her children.
The most confusing part of the divorce for Evelyn and Mark was that, unlike the other kids they knew whose parents weren’t married, the children wouldn’t be living with their mother. Ismael had gotten custody and Evelyn knew her mother hadn’t put up much of a fight. Ismael couldn’t believe how quickly his ex-wife relinquished custody of their children. He thought she was treating them like pieces of furniture to be divided between them. Three months after the divorce, Evelyn, Ismael, and Mark were evicted from their apartment and moved in with Ismael’s mother.
Six months later, toward the end of eighth grade, Evelyn met her father’s new girlfriend, Tina, who, with her 10-year-old son, the same age as Mark, would be moving in with them because she was pregnant. The family then
moved out of Ismael’s mother’s home and into the third floor of the Morris Park townhouse.
Ismael agonized over his daughter’s unhappiness and the cloudy prospects for her future. He knew she was smart, but also knew she had gone astray at school, and he was frustrated with her picking fights with him and her classmates. He hoped high school would give her a fresh start, and when he heard of the new small schools opening the same year Evelyn was beginning high school, he made sure she ranked the new schools at the top of her high school application form. Evelyn, too, knew she wanted to go to a small school since she had been going to a small private middle school. When she read about the Bronx Guild, she liked how small the classes were going to be and that she would spend two to three days per week doing an internship. She also read something about some kind of camp she would go to. That sounded fun—she had gone to overnight camps when she was younger. Evelyn believed the Bronx Guild would be the best high school for her. She didn’t get in at first after the high school selection lottery, so her grandmother, an aide at a Bronx elementary school, wrote a letter to the principal and pleaded with him to accept her granddaughter. The letter worked and Evelyn was in. She and her father hoped the school would be what Evelyn needed to return to her old self.
On an August evening in 2002, a few weeks before the first day of school, Joan Ruley, one of the original Bronx Guild teachers, knocked on Evelyn’s family’s apartment door. The home visit would be the first of seven, a component of Bronx Guild principal and founder Michael Soguero’s vision. Before the school year started, Soguero wanted Bronx Guild faculty to go to incoming freshmen’s homes to meet parents and explain the structure and philosophy. The school would eventually have between 200 and 300 students, with no more than 20 assigned to one teacher. They would participate in creating their own coursework and do internships two to three days each week. All would leave with enough credits to apply to college.
Evelyn opened the door and rolled her eyes at the sight of Joan. What was this teacher doing here? “OK, I’ll get my dad,” she told her future math teacher. Joan was struck by how young and immature Evelyn seemed, even for a 14-year-old. Evelyn was easily distracted and spoke in a high-pitched, squirrelly voice. Joan listened as Evelyn’s father confided that he just wasn’t sure how Evelyn would do in high school because she had so much trouble focusing. After she pulled out of her withdrawn phase, Evelyn had then become somewhat unruly at school, talking all the time and arguing with teachers and classmates. He told Joan he hoped his daughter would settle down once she started high school.
Once school started, Joan understood what Ismael meant when he described his daughter’s behavior. Evelyn was hyper in class, wouldn’t listen to teachers, and always seemed more interested in getting attention from boys than doing any work. “Who is this girl?” Joan wondered to herself.
Evelyn got off to a bad start with her new classmates too. The second month into school, all of the freshmen had to go on a wilderness trip with Outward Bound, and that’s when Evelyn’s troubles with other students began.
Miles away from the familiar sounds of emergency sirens or fighting siblings, Evelyn and her fellow freshmen trudged single file along a Harriman State Park hiking trail about 30 miles north of New York City. Their 40-pound backpacks, holding all the food and clothes they needed for the three-day trip, tested their balance. Only their unsteady feet crunching the orange and red leaves and the occasional declarations of “My back hurts” or “I’d give anything for buffalo wings” broke the unfamiliar stillness in the crisp late-October air.
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.
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.
Watching Evelyn walk through the Bronx Guild halls early in her senior year, it’s easy to picture her managing a hotel. These days, she in many ways “rules the school,” presiding over senior class meetings and marching through the halls, head held high, as boys greet her with a kiss on the cheek. She speaks loudly and confidently to teachers, fellow students, and hall aides, never lingering quite long enough to hear their responses.
In mid October, on senior picture day at the school—another milestone not only for the 52 seniors expected to graduate, but for the school as well—the professional photographers have converted the foreign-language classroom into a studio for the day. Evelyn’s friend Elisa, also a senior, has converted a corner in their classroom into a beauty salon. Other students apply makeup, comb their hair, and double-check their appearances in bathroom mirrors. Evelyn waits for her 11 a.m. slot as Elisa puts on dark red lipstick and ano-ther friend, Jasmine, a sophomore, straightens Elisa’s hair with a ceramic hot iron.
Unlike Jasmine and Elisa, who experiment weekly with different hair colors, wear makeup, and have at least a few facial piercings, Evelyn makes no fashion statements and rarely wears makeup. She usually comes to school wearing a T-shirt and jeans, or sometimes her flannel pajama pants. For senior picture day, she remains natural, wearing only a touch of mascara, clear lip gloss (after some prodding by the photographer), and a solid black button-down shirt. A simple chain with a dangling heart pendant has replaced the rosary she usually wears. And of course, she never comes to school without her “Eevee” hoop earrings.
Evelyn, all dressed up with someplace to go: The senior prom with Ben Whitehead, her date, at the Marina del Ray in the Bronx
But when it’s time to sit for the photograph, Evelyn becomes uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “You must not want to smile because you’re not going to graduate,” the photographer teases as he strategically pulls her hair to one side. Kara, another senior, interjects from the waiting area, “Yeah, right. She’s too smart to not graduate.”
After relaxing long enough to have her picture taken, Evelyn returns to her classroom to take over straightening Elisa’s hair and sends Jasmine back to her own classroom. As she clips and unclips her friend’s hair, she talks about another scholarship application essay. For this one, she has written about her parents’ divorce and her mom moving out. She describes the experience without the emotion to match her words: depression, drama, and turmoil. She brushes off Elisa’s suggestion that she get someone else to finish her hair so she can talk in private. She jumps around in subject, following statements like “Instead of doing drugs or giving up, I just stayed focused on school” with “Oh, I gotta call to get my work schedule.”
Elisa interrupts to add that she once overheard Evelyn’s mom say how horrible her daughter was. “Yeah,” Evelyn adds as though talking about a classmate. “My mom always talks crap about me.”
Evelyn’s mother’s departure from her life has given the young woman an early maternal instinct. Evelyn frequently reminds her friends of the credits they still need and constantly urges Jasmine to go back to class, pay attention, and take better notes. Elisa, who transferred to Bronx Guild after two difficult years at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Westchester Square neighborhood of the Bronx, says Evelyn is like a mom to her and their other friends. Elisa prefers the smaller school because at her first school, she was just a face in the crowd and cut class a lot. Now it’s easier for her to stay out of trouble, with the teachers paying so much attention to her and with “this one,” she adds, nodding toward Evelyn.
To an outsider, Bronx Guild might seem quirky at best and chaotic at worst. Students frequently linger in the common area lounge and the hallways, chatting with friends, teachers, or the school aides who monitor the hallways. Inside Evelyn’s homeroom, crew leaders Jay Lee and Raul Vazquez do not lecture the class on world history, classical literature, or other subjects that one might expect in a high school. Instead, the students talk about last weekend’s Giants game and gossip about who is dating whom, while Vazquez does homework for his graduate math course and Lee comes in and out, dealing with attendance and individual student projects. Evelyn, meanwhile, always sitting in the red-and-black wooden chair she and her crew built last year, usually works on college applications or chats with Elisa.
One afternoon in late October, structure does seem to emerge through the chaotic surface. Students still linger in the common area, but this time, they’re talking about schoolwork. A freshman girl asks Geraldine, a junior who also works as Principal So-guero’s assistant, for ideas for her first-semester project. Two other students sit at a table in the corner with a Regents exam tutor reviewing word problems likely to appear on the math test. One boy, a senior, sets up materials on the common area’s center table to build a Mayan temple with clay, part of an assignment for the group going to Mexico over spring break.
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.
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.
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 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.
By February, Evelyn has been admitted to Johnson and Wales University, which has six campuses; the closest one to the Bronx is in Providence, Rhode Island. She’s still waiting to hear from New York Institute of Technology, her top choice.
Recently though, she has been mentioning to Joan Ruley, now the school’s college counselor, that she’s considering taking a semester off and starting college in January 2007 instead of in the fall. This is the first time Ruley has heard Evelyn talk about not going to college right away, and the counselor worries that Evelyn has gotten too caught up with her part-time Starbucks job and her boyfriend, Ben.
A few weeks later, at the beginning of March, Evelyn comes to school to say goodbye to her crew leader Jay Lee, who is leaving for the rest of the year on paternity leave. Through tears, she thanks him for everything he’s done for her and hugs him. After Lee leaves, Evelyn’s left to finish up her remaining credits with Brian Ford, the world history teacher with thick long red hair, a full beard, and the appearance of a college professor with his corduroy blazer, wool scarf, and button pinned to his lapel that says “Is this fascism yet?”
On this day, Evelyn has lost her “Eevee” earrings, the ones she has worn every day for a year. She has replaced them with another pair—silver and gold block letters that spell “Ben,” her boyfriend’s name. She is now convinced she needs a break from school. Just last week, a classmate called her a cow and a bitch as the two passed each other in the hallway between classes. Normally, Evelyn would ignore comments like that. But this time, she spoke up and got in the girl’s face, almost getting into a fight before teachers calmed Evelyn down. “I’m regressing,” Evelyn says. “I don’t usually let that stuff bother me anymore.”
Evelyn blames the self-described regression on her grandmother for always criticizing how she looks, the clothes she wears. All she can think about now is getting out of her grandmother’s house. She wants to be independent, but her grandmother insists she follow house rules. She begged her father to move back to the Bronx so she could move in with him, but Ismael, now working for Federal Express at Newark airport, is waiting to hear about his request to be transferred to LaGuardia. Because he works so many hours, he doesn’t want to have the long commute to New Jersey every day.
Since her father doesn’t have immediate plans to move, Evelyn, having just turned 18 in February, now wants to get her own place with Ben. She hates to depend on others, but she can’t take another day living with her grandmother and Ben’s weekly paycheck from Dunkin’ Donuts equals her monthly wages from Starbucks. He could cover her expenses until she graduates in June, when she can start working full-time. And Ben says he wants to take care of her. A few weeks earlier, as the two were riding the train to have dinner with Ben’s mother, he asked Evelyn, “Will you be my wifey?”
“See, in the ghetto world, that just means, ‘Will you be my serious girlfriend?’ ” Evelyn explains. “So I didn’t really take him all that seriously.”
But two weeks later, Evelyn comes to school wearing a 14-karat white gold, cubic zirconia ring on her left ring finger. She and Ben got engaged. Her mother, who lately has been trying to repair her relationship with Evelyn, is taking them out to dinner that evening to celebrate. Her father, however, doesn’t approve, and he’s moving back to the Bronx by the end of the month. He will commute to Newark until his work transfer comes through. His main objective now is to convince Evelyn to go straight to college and to move in with him.
As Evelyn notices him shaking his head about her plans to move in with Ben, she pulls a chair up next to her father and asks, “So, what are you saying about me?”
“Well, I’m trying to decide what institution I’m going to send you to,” Ismael responds.
Evelyn explains again to him that she isn’t ready for college and that she’ll start a certificate program and then go to college later. She has looked at different business certificate programs with Bronx Guild’s counselors, but they also want to steer her back to going to college right away. Joan Ruley has pleaded with her to at least go to college part-time in the fall. “Even one or two classes would be better than nothing,” Ruley told her.
Ismael and the college counselors worry that if Evelyn doesn’t go to college now, she never will. Even though she can’t convince them, Evelyn believes she will eventually go to school. “It’s one of my goals,” she says, “and I’m not going to give that up. I just need to be ready for it.”
Last June, Evelyn graduated from Bronx Guild, along with 51 out of the 75 students who started with her in 2002, or nearly double the citywide average.
The school held its ceremony at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who had helped Principal Soguero when he was arrested the previous year, spoke to the students about their civil rights and their future. But Evelyn, sitting with her friends in her bright red cap and gown, could barely focus on Lieberman’s words. She just couldn’t believe she was graduating. “I was so proud of myself,” she says. “I was really, really excited.”
The Bronx Guild faculty felt just as proud. They took bets before the ceremony about who would cry. Almost all of them did.
At the end of the ceremony, each student was given a rose and told to give it to someone important in his or her life. Evelyn couldn’t choose just one person, so she gave single petals to her friends, her boyfriend, her teachers, and her aunt. She gave the stem to her mother. She would have included her father, but he had to work that day.
By graduation, Evelyn had been accepted to New York Institute of Technology, but she decided not to enroll. Instead she moved in with Ben into a one-room apartment on the Grand Concourse that they rented on a week-to-week basis. By July, their relationship was falling apart; they were arguing constantly. They got into fights—physical fights. In the last one, both claimed the other drew blood. After that, Evelyn moved out.
During July and part of August, she worked as a counselor running the zip line—a skill she learned with Outward Bound—at a summer day camp in Westchester. But then she quit before the camp’s session ended because her wrist was hurting all the time.
Evelyn then chose to do City Year, a community mentoring program that provides college tuition grant money to its participants after they complete a year of service. She was set to begin the program at the beginning of September, but quit when she went to the City Year office to register because she didn’t like all of the rules, which included restrictions like no gum or headphones, and no sitting on the subway. Plus, the weekly $200 stipend just wasn’t going to be enough to pay for the apartment she wants to rent.
Just before students return for the 2006–2007 school year, Evelyn goes back to the Bronx Guild as teachers are cleaning up their classrooms and preparing for the first day of school. She confidently walks from classroom to classroom, greeting her former teachers with hugs and asking them if they missed her. They all want to know what her plans are.
“I quit City Year,” she tells them. And they immediately try to convince her to give it a try. “I know City Year is hardcore,” Jeff Palladino tells her. “But it might be the better choice in the long run.”
But Evelyn won’t listen. She explains that she can earn more working at Starbucks in two days than she can in a week with City Year. What she wants more than anything is to live on her own and not have to depend on anyone else. For now, her plan is to work as much as she can, get her own apartment, and start taking college classes in January. “These people think I’m going to work at Starbucks my whole life,” Evelyn says. “I understand what Jeff’s trying to say that it’s not always about the money, but sometimes it is. Right now, I need to survive.”