Carla Tapia, 17, came to DreamYard from private school.  She likes the school's strong sense of community and personal attention.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Carla Tapia, 17, came to DreamYard from private school. She likes the school’s strong sense of community and personal attention. “If I’m having trouble in a class, something I don’t understand, I can ask my peers,” she says, even though she is “a very shy person.”

Taft High School in the Bronx was among the first large high schools closed by Mayor Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s revamped Department of Education. Now, the building houses seven—yes, seven!—high schools, including one, the Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men, which is being phased out of existence, even as another, Claremont International, comes on line, one grade at a time.

As part of our year-long look at the people who will make up the mayor’s final graduating class, and whose whole academic career has been shaped by the mayor’s reforms, City Limits visited with seniors at two Taft schools—DreamYard Preparatory High School and the Bronx Collegiate Academy (BCA)—and discovered young people excited to begin their adult lives, if less than certain about what might unfold.

Long odds, big dreams

Keldwin Taveras, a tall, soft-spoken DreamYard senior with big, dark eyes and bigger ambitions, says he wants to study neuroscience; he’s applied to top-tier schools like Johns Hopkins and Cornell and, through the POSSE foundation (a group that develops academically talented urban youth and aims to place groups of students at highly ranked liberal arts colleges), he was accepted at USC, until his financial aid package came up short.

Keldwin is shy to critique his high school—but his desire for advanced academics is one thing he’d have considered more carefully, in hindsight.

“Personally, I feel I’m not academically challenged,” Keldwin says. “Bloomberg isn’t doing the best possible job. The school is so small that it can’t have extra classes—but students like us want the extra challenge. We want the extra push.” He catches his breath for a moment, then adds, “I would have loved to take Physics. I would have loved to have an AP in math.” But the Physics teacher left, he says, and hasn’t been replaced. (The school’s Regents science sequence ends with Chemistry; math ends with Trig.)

Tossing back a sweep of dark, glossy hair, Lydia Villa says she plans to major in dance and minor in business; she’s applied to Rutgers, Cornell and Alfred University. For Lydia, DreamYard Prep High School has been school, platform and personal springboard: Lydia’s worked hard to make connections, build relationships and network, she says, both in her school and with the arts nonprofit, the DreamYard foundation that anchored the school’s creation.

“I’ve always been very involved,” Lydia says. Tapped for a summer program called Summer Search, Lydia spent two weeks at Shenandoah University; trekked for 10 days in Maine with Outward Bound; and spend part of last summer in Idlewild, Calif., for dance camp.

As part of the signature Bloomberg initiative of small, themed high schools created to better serve high-need students—identified in the administration’s early years as a vital focus of system-wide school reform—DreamYard began as a project of a local arts nonprofit, the DreamYard Foundation.

Before becoming a DreamYard student, Lydia was involved with the Foundation. She took poetry classes that led, eventually, to a reading at the White House, and brought her to the attention of Caroline Kennedy, long affiliated with the organization. “Because of my connections, Caroline Kennedy wrote my college recommendation letter,” she says, with obvious pride.

Despite the summer enrichments and ongoing arts programs, though, Lydia feels her school lacks the resources other schools enjoy. “They tell us the realities of college, and how we need to be independently motivated, but we have not gotten the full preparedness [for college] that other schools have gotten,” like SAT test prep ahead of the big pre-college exam. Principal Alicia Wargo says that SAT prep will be mandatory for all DreamYard juniors this year—but it wasn’t for Lydia’s class.

Still, Lydia notes, “The attention is what motivates you and helps you to succeed.”

Although BCA and DreamYard Prep offer Advanced Placement classes together, they offer few opportunities for motivated students to pursue advanced academics. Right now, APs focus on English and Spanish, along with US history and government. Both principals say they hope to offer a math or science AP next year, but no firm plans have been set.

Schools evolved

BCA began as an Outward Bound high school, built on the principle that the confidence and skills kids gain through challenging outdoor experiences translates to the discipline and motivation to succeed in the classroom.

But the outdoorsy mission didn’t quite suit the kids, principal Darryl White tells City Limits—and the school had to make hard choices about its future.

“We asked so much of them,” White says, of the difficult balance between outdoor adventure and academic focus. “It’s tough to serve both gods.”

The motivation to change the school came from the staff, he said, “especially in a climate of accountability and [school] report-card grades. I didn’t want to roll the dice” and gamble with the students’ or the school’s future. Reincarnated as the Bronx Collegiate Academy, the school’s focus now is academics first and foremost.

“It’s really about test prep,” White says. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s what it is.” That and pushing kids to work harder. “We had to raise expectations. We had kids who coasted; now, they’re feeling pressure, they’re studying. We needed to put some barricades and heavier things in their way,” and motivate success by pushing back.

Ready or not

The school’s progress grades, which determine school survival, have since climbed: from a C to a B in 2009 and 2010, to a prized A in 2011. Both the principal and students feel the difference.

“It’s so much better,” Guillermaddie (Maddie) Aquino says. A senior now, she experienced both the Outward Bound experience, as a freshman, and the changeover to BCA. “The old principal, I don’t even think he knew our names,” Maddie says. “Mr. White, we all love him. We don’t disrespect him.”

Slender, lanky BCA senior Amadou Barry is all elbows and angles, folded into a chair in a crowded outer office. He came to the U.S. from Guinea in the seventh grade, speaking no English. By grade 8, he was in all-English classes at MS 301. He enrolled in a floundering charter school for 9th grade and transferred to Bronx Collegiate as a 10th-grader. The only one of his 16 siblings in the U.S., Amadou lives now with his cousins. His mother came with him when he moved to New York, but has since returned to Guinea.

“I feel lucky,” he says. “Nobody in my family went to college,” but that’s where Amadou is headed: He’s applied to Stony Brook, Syracuse and Quinnipiac College. “My family originally objected to my going away,” he says, a sliver of a smile growing as he spoke, “but I talked to them, and convinced them to let me go.”

Glismel Alcantara began her high-school career far downtown, at Washington Irving High School, near Union Square in Manhattan—but after she “got jumped,” her father arranged for a safety transfer to Bronx Collegiate, closer to her home. Born in the Dominican Republic, Glismel bounced between the U.S. and the DR until middle school, when she settled in the Bronx. She plans to go to a CUNY school to study early childhood education and become a lawyer, she says, because her dad’s against her going away—and because she already has a job at a Chuck-E-Cheese nearby. “I’m all set, already,” she says between stealing bites of Maddie’s roasted-chicken lunch. Besides, “I’m an only child,” she adds, “and I don’t want to leave my Dad all alone with my stepmom.”

Rising graduation rates at both schools are welcome news: At DreamYard, 54 percent of kids graduate in four years, as do 56 percent at BCA, compared with 60 percent citywide. Six-year grad rates, particularly important for non-native-English speaking students, rise to 72 and 68 percent, respectively. But college readiness stats tell a different story, as fewer than 10 percent of graduates at either school are classified as “ready” to earn C grades at CUNY schools.

Tracking progress, emphasizing art

At BCA, teachers closely track student progress, encouraging kids to try Regents in advanced math (even though the school’s math curriculum ends at Trig) or retake Regents to aim for higher grades. This is a deliberate change from the school’s earlier mission, White says, and evidence of his school’s commitment to improving academics.

DreamYard emphasizes “immersion in the arts,” according to Wargo, because “the discipline kids learn prepares them for anything else in life: You learn creative problem-solving and critical thinking; you develop your ability to collaborate,” all skills of great value in and beyond academe. Frequent performances and presentations build confidence.

Students agree. DreamYard’s Taniah Horton, who wants to major in Spanish and eventually “pursue a Bollywood career,” says she used to stutter when she was younger.

“I was always a shy child,” she says. “From my freshman year to graduation, I’m a completely changed person. For example, I was a very, very shy, awkward little girl. Now, I’m more vocal, able to address certain issues I’d never expected to do, like issues at home.” Taniah’s father has been an inconstant presence in her life. At 14, she could never have imagined confronting her father, she says. “My father would give me his intimidating look,” Taniah recalls. “Finally, I had the ability to tell him, ‘You were never there for me, and I don’t know what to do.’ ” (Her father was unresponsive, she says.)

The stutter disappeared “the minute I got into Summer Search,” Taniah says. After three weeks on her own in Maine, “I found a new sense of confidence. I found clarity in myself and in knowing who my friends were.” She hasn’t stopped expressing herself since, she says.

“I was never promised anything out of life,” Taniah says. “I gave up early. This environment, [at DreamYard,] no one ever gives up on you.”

Hard reach for the high bar

Glismel has lived in the Bronx and the Dominican Republic, shuttling between the two every few years. She had a rocky start at Washington Irving—“I only got 4 credits my freshman year,” when students are expected to earn 11 credits, “and I didn’t take any Regents.” At BCA, things are “way better,” she said. “I made up all my credits, I passed all my Regents,” and now, she’s looking to earn an Advanced Regents diploma, taking extra Regents exams in June in math and earth science.

Less than 10 percent of DYP students come to high school rated “proficient” or “above proficient” on state tests, Wargo said—a statistic that holds for BCA students, too, as well as for most Taft kids. This deficit hampers student learning across the board. No one can explain how so many struggling students manage through middle school and into high school if social promotion is no longer practiced. Policy notwithstanding, school principals say, their 9th grade students are coming to school unprepared for high-school work; a steady flow of new students complicates the picture.

Some kids simply turn up, newly arrived in the U.S., most often from the Dominican Republic: Both DreamYard and BCA enrolled more than a dozen new students each in the first weeks of January, a typical month. Attendance is less than stellar, hovering around 80 percent. Both principals say improving attendance is an important priority, because frequent absences make it tough for teachers to keep a steady instructional pace, and hobble the progress of motivated kids who show up every day.

Students face real obstacles to attendance, Wargo said, including unstable home lives and uncertain housing. Some kids have kids of their own, but can’t take advantage of the Taft complex’s “LYFE” child-care center—because participation there requires minimums of high-school attendance that students can’t seem to meet.

Guidance needed

DreamYard’s full-time college counselor is assigned to the school through the nonprofit New Settlement’s College Access Center. But many other high school students across New York don’t have the extra help, or good guidance. Each school principal controls his or her own budget, and makes decisions about how best to staff the school. And there’s no formal job description for college counselors in city schools; college guidance can come from a dedicated guidance counselor—someone whose whole job is navigating the college-app and financial-aid process–or, more often, from a teacher or other staffer who has knowledge to share.

DOE sources report that roughly 3,000 guidance counselors work in the city schools, but DOE doesn’t know how many schools have full-time college counselors
An October 2012 study by Comptroller John Liu highlighted stark gaps in high-school guidance, documenting that 51 percent of school counselors carry a caseload of more than 250 students—and that virtually all the rest are responsible for 100 to 250 students each. Citing a study by the Urban Youth Collaborative, Liu notes that two-thirds of high-school students have limited access to counselors, including 50 percent of students who attend small high schools that showcase an intimate, nurturing learning community as a prime strength. By this measure, DreamYard students have hit the college-guidance jackpot: One full-time counselor is assigned to support and guide the small school’s seniors.

But whether DreamYard’s grads, and the other students in Taft’s seven high schools, stay with their studies after high school—stats show about half continue their education—depends on more than guidance counselors, passionate teachers and starry ambition: Whether high school graduates are prepared to step up to the academic challenges set before them remains a persistently open question.

Challenge and response

Despite life’s complex hurdles, BCA students demonstrate the abiding value of the do-over: For Glismel, who failed both chemistry and earth science in 11th grade, she has the opportunity to retake the science class this year—and sit for the Regents exam, for the higher-level diploma. Maddie is repeating chem, too, and will retake a math exam she first tried last year.

Maddie lived in Puerto Rico, where she was born, until second grade. She lives in Washington Heights and takes two buses to get to school. She says that the change from Outward Bound to BCA is palpable: the school now requires uniforms (as does DreamYard Prep) and the focus on going to college became paramount.

Already accepted at two upstate colleges, Maddie’s thinking a school closer to home, like the College of Westchester, might be a better fit. “I want to go away,” she says, even if not that far. “I have three younger brothers. They get on my nerves a lot.” Maddie and her brothers live with their Mom; her dad lives in Puerto Rico.

But getting to the threshold of college wasn’t a straight line for Maddie, who had health challenges—a broken ankle—and family issues—a beloved grandfather, ill in Puerto Rico—that kept her focus off academics, and kept Maddie from coming to school every day. By junior year, she realized, “I’m not putting school first,” and decided to make a change.

“Everybody’s on top of us,” she says, to retake exams, to do well. But it’s not a complaint, coming from Maddie: It’s a point of pride that her teachers say, we believe in you, we believe you can do better—and then give her the opportunity to prove them right. Maddie’s especially good at math, she says, and her math teacher knows it: “Sometimes she puts something hard” up on the board, just for Maddie, “and says, ‘you can do it.’ I like that.”