MIRACLE SCHOOL

Half of This School’s Students Are Homeless or in Foster Care. 82% Go to College.

At Broome Street Academy, 77 percent of students are classified as ‘economically disadvantaged.’ But almost everybody goes on to college. How?

03.28.16 5:00 AM ET

Blocks away from high-end enclaves of fashion houses, macaron shops, and a Greek yogurt bar, Broome Street Academy Charter High School stands as a stark contrast to its surrounding neighborhood in Manhattan’s West Village.

Founded in 2011, Broome Street Academy serves students that the rest of New York has largely given up on. It’s a tuition-free institution where 50 percent of the school’s student lottery is set aside for students who are homeless, recently homeless, transitionally housed, or in foster care. As of 2015, over 77 percent of the school is classified as economically disadvantaged, while 27 percent are considered to be students with disabilities.

But here’s what’s really remarkable about Broome Street Academy: 82 percent of Broome Street’s first graduating class enrolled in a two-year or four-year college program in 2015.

“It’s about breaking the cycle,” BSA’s Head of School Barbara McKeon tells me in her office. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we couldn’t make a difference. Am I going to change the world? No. But am I going to change individual worlds? I hope so.”

Before McKeon joined Broome Street Academy as the new head of school in 2013, BSA had been successfully brought off the ground by its original principal, but was struggling. Just before McKeon took over, there had been a major brawl in the street in front of the school involving dozens of students from BSA and a separate high school across the street. Half of BSA’s students were suspended after the fight.

“Start-up phase schools are really hard,” McKeon said. “After that fight, it was really important to change who [the students] saw themselves as, and who the community saw them as. We had to change the reputation. It’s a very hard thing to make these students believe that they deserve better.”

There would be plenty of problems to solve, including when McKeon was physically assaulted by a student in her first year at BSA. She talks of the incident without a trace of anger in her voice, saying how her and the student came to a mutual agreement for the pupil to leave the school.

“We can’t be afraid of these children,” McKeon said. “They’re children! People are afraid of this ‘type’ of kid. I’m not afraid of them. They’re teenagers. They’re wrestling with hormones, boyfriends, girlfriends, gender identity, sexual identity, social-emotional development. Plus, I mean, I had a student in here today who witnessed a murder in a bodega the previous day. Imagine dealing with that type of thing, in addition to all the other stuff.”

Indeed, BSA students face challenges unheard of for many high schoolers in New York—or across the country. McKeon can list a flurry of terrifying anecdotes from her students’ experiences over the years off the top of her head. One student, she says, secretly gave birth in a bathtub in her home her junior year, but still managed to graduate. A young male student was stabbed in the back in his neighborhood, while another came home from school one day to discover his parents had been deported.

Day-to-day logistical challenges can prove just as difficult. To get to the school, some students travel from as far away as Staten Island, East New York or Co-op City in the Bronx, in what can end up being two-hour commutes each way.

Broome Street Academy students preparing for their Algebra and Trigonometry Regents exam on June 17, 2014.

Broome Street Academy/Facebook

Broome Street Academy students preparing for their Algebra and Trigonometry Regents exam on June 17, 2014.

Despite it all, BSA’s students are making stunning progress. Last month, BSA’s charter was renewed in full for the next five years by the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York after a glowing report from SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute.

The 82 percent of students attending some form of college after they graduated in 2015? That figure is up from just 33.3 percent in 2014. In 2015, 82.4 percent of BSA students re-enrolled in the school, up from 67.8 percent in 2012. Average daily attendance rose from 68 percent to 81 percent in 2015.

Although BSA for the most part fell short of state standards for English/Language Arts and Math standardized test scores, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute still wrote in their report that BSA’s “rigorous curriculum and instruction, strong leadership and continual use of data to monitor programs coalesce into a particularly strong and effective educational program.”

BSA has even earned some royal acclaim. Their Royal Highnesses William and Kate visited the school in a secretive December 2014 visit through CITYArts, a New York public arts organization. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Edward, followed suit in March of 2015, swinging by Broome Street after awarding the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award to five BSA students.

“To actually have that kind of person here talking to them was something that just was really special,” said McKeon. “The students ask me, ‘Why is he here?’ and I’m telling them, ‘He’s here to see you!’”

Broome Street has been able to make progress through a variety of initiatives. For one, BSA isn’t run by a hedge fund. The Door, a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth, is the sole corporate member of the BSA’s education corporation. Primary funding comes from the state of New York and raising money independently.

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BSA and The Door share a building and pool their resources in what McKeon says exemplifies a commitment to the community schooling model. Through The Door, every student enrolled at BSA is provided health, dental, and reproductive health care, in addition to mental health counseling, a wide variety of after-school activities, and three meals a day, all for free.

Truancy is still a problem at Broome Street, but McKeon tries to be proactive about discipline. After bullying incidents rose in 2014, McKeon developed the “Champion” system, where every staff member from McKeon to the school’s data analyst is paired with a group of students. The goal is develop a real relationship between staff member and student. The program’s premise is fluid, with few standard meeting times but rather an emphasis on checking in with your champion whenever you need to.

“They’re very guarded. One student refused to tell me where he lived when I asked him. That’s classic teenage behavior, but on steroids. They’re torn. [They are] thinking, ‘Why should I trust you when I don’t trust anybody else?’” said McKeon.

Broome Street Academy students on their first day of school on September 9, 2014.

Broome Street Academy/Facebook

Broome Street Academy students on their first day of school on September 9, 2014.

“We have to earn it. We earn trust through explicit conversations. I’m going to respect my students’ feelings. I may not condone their actions, but I will respect their feelings.”

BSA pairs the Champion program with a carefully codified, data-driven behavioral intervention model. Teachers note student behavior daily in an online database, in which “champions” keep track of and can directly reference in administrator-student meetings. Minor conduct violations are less frequently resolved with traditional punishment, instead mediated through a designated representative at a “help desk.”

More serious infractions are usually sorted out with a tailored project. After one student stole a teacher’s credit card to buy Chipotle, for example, McKeon tasked the teenager to create a presentation about identity theft in New York to present to BSA’s entire staff.

McKeon described the situation, then showed me her recording of the end of the presentation on her computer. At the end of the video, the student breaks down in tears. When the presentation is finished, the student’s teacher speaks from the audience, and forgives her in person.

“I think we’re pretty unique,” said McKeon. “I think we shouldn’t be. I spend a lot of time in meetings with educators and legislators where I have to tell them that I’m not that kind of charter school. That’s not a dig or a diss. We’re just different, so please don’t group me in the charter discussion.”

There are still bad days at Broome Street Academy, but a good day for McKeon and her team is one where her students can feel like what they are: teenage high school students.

“Pi Day was a good day. Students were able to set up a fundraiser to decide which staff member was going to get a pie thrown at them. It was a student event, and they were happy,” said McKeon.

“It showed them that there’s life, and there’s high school life. If we can take any pieces of high school life that are special and unique enough to remember them when things get rough, that’s a good day.”