In the early 2000s Wingate High School was a symbol of the failure of urban public education. This once-venerable school, founded more than 50 years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, graduated less than 25 percent of its students, housed notorious gangs, witnessed numerous acts of violence and instilled fear in the hearts and minds of the local community. In a city with multiple failing high schools, Wingate stood out as one of the worst and one of the most dangerous.
In 2003, at the age of 26, I helped start the High School for Public Service in the Wingate building, believing that all students can and will learn if supported and nurtured. Over the next seven years, the teachers, staff, students, parents and community members have transformed the school into an example of the possibilities of urban education. Enrolling the same neighborhood students who failed at Wingate, we boast a 98 percent graduation rate, a 93 percent attendance rate, and a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
We have achieved this success by committing to individualized education and focusing on differentiated instruction to meet the needs of all students. With a small school and incredibly dedicated and talented teachers, we are able to assign work that is aligned to the learning needs of each of our students. Be it a choice of book to read for an English assignment or allowing for five different types of assignments to show understanding of the same book, we respect the learning style and ability of each for our student. This individualized education starts with the student where they are and moves them forward, rather than treat all students the same.
We provide emotional and social support through our unique advisory program. All of our children are placed in a group of 10 to 17 students, run by an adult at the school, be it a school aide, parent coordinator, teacher, or principal. These advisories, which meet once a week for an hour, stay together, through thick and thin, for all four years as they form a family to support each other. By having this four-year support structure every student always has at least one adult to lean on for help.
We have been named one of the best schools in the nation by US News and World Report and one of the top public high schools in New York City by the New York Post. However, our academic accomplishments are only part of the story. We have created the largest school-run farm in Brooklyn, producing over 400 pounds of fresh produce each week, which we sell at our farmer’s market in front of the school. In a neighborhood dubbed a “food desert,” with one of the nation’s highest rates of diabetes and obesity, access to vegetables is essential. On the farm we teach nutrition, cooking, and gardening classes for parents, students, and community members.
Our 400 students completed more the 10,000 community service hours last year, working at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, tutoring centers, and nursing homes. Through our work, we were able to create a New York City bus stop in front of the school, so the students didn’t have to walk into gang territory to get home. Our students have been recognized locally and nationally for the incredible work they do and when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the creation of the first municipal Chief Service Officer in the country, he choose the community service classroom at the High School for Public Service to hold the news conference. The academic triumphs coupled with tremendous community service work make the High School for Public Service exceptional; that this has occurred in an all-minority, Title I school, located in an area with one of the highest rates of poverty and incarceration in the country, make our accomplishments truly amazing.
Through our commitment to community empowerment, the school’s decisions are made collaboratively. Thus, I alone cannot take credit for our astonishing success, but as the founder and principal of the High School for Public Service, I am honored to be asked to share our accomplishments with you.