Last fall, a Howard University sophomore was fielding dozens of phone calls between midnight and 3 a.m. from seniors at Brooklyn College Academy.
The young men had a million questions about applying to college, and as a leader of the Sophisticated Well Articulated Gentlemen’s Group (SWAGG) to which they all belong, Jude Bridgewater had pledged to always answer their calls.
Bridgewater, 20, says one of his best days of the year came this spring when a member named Turel Polite, who had clashed early and often with high school administrators, was accepted into his top-choice college – the Academy of Art University in California. Polite credits high school staff members who stayed on his case, and the close-knit network of SWAGG.
“This is a family to me, I can’t look at it any other way,” says Polite, 18, who graduated in June and will be the first male in his family to go to college. “These are my brothers, and every day I come to school, whether I’m feeling good or not … they’ve kept me from doing a lot of things which would have prevented from being here today.”
Brooklyn College Academy has ushered many students like Bridgewater and Polite successfully through high school: 100 percent of the school’s black students graduated on time last year, and almost all of them went on to four-year colleges. In contrast, the overall graduation rate for black male students in New York City was 58 percent in 2014.
School officials say their model is replicable – but only in schools where the adults are willing to pay relentless attention and to hold the students to consistently high expectations.
The secret to the school’s success is not simply which students they pick, administrators say (although they do get to choose – last year 2,800 students applied for 150 seats), but an unremitting and personalized focus on each individual. The understanding that the students come with challenges and unmet needs enabled SWAGG’s creation. It was founded by students who were searching for realistic pathways through the social land mines in their neighborhoods, and for older boys like themselves to learn from and emulate. More than a third of the 56 male students in this year’s senior class were members of SWAGG this year, and school administrators credit its alumni network and leaders for helping to guide an important group of students.
Principal Nicholas Mazzarella, a 28-year veteran of city schools, and his assistant principals have set up systems to track the punctuality, dress code standards and grades of every student, but they say the key to their success is in the painstaking building of relationships between adults and students.
“I know all of my children, and I can notice when something’s wrong with them, because from September I’ve been monitoring them,” says assistant principal Shernell Thomas-Daley, who came to BCA with Mazzarella when he took over in 2005. “The child who’s not modeling the best behavior, those are my specialties.”
That level of attention goes beyond individual administrators. Each student has a guidance counselor, assigned starting in ninth grade, who works with them for all four years and becomes their college counselor. Caseloads at the approximately 600-student school generally stay under 150 students, compared with the national average of 478. One of the loudest cheers at this year’s graduation was from the outgoing seniors for their class’ college counselor.
Because he spends more than the average on guidance counselors, Mazzarella, who was principal at Park East High School in Manhattan before taking over at BCA, has to be very careful with his budget. The school just misses the poverty threshold that would give it extra federal money, and the PTA raised only about $4,000 this year. He keeps core English and math classes small, but lets others get up to around 32 pupils. There are basketball teams (the girls won the citywide Division B title this year) but no athletic program beyond that, and no after-school clubs. Still, every child learns an instrument in ninth grade and can participate in the school’s World Ensemble, a nationally acclaimed orchestra that plays global music.
One of Mazzarella’s most significant changes was the addition of the early college program. Two years of global history are crammed into one, and most of the students pass all their Regents exams except trigonometry by the end of 10th grade. As juniors, they are freed up to take classes at Brooklyn College taught by college professors and adjuncts; on average, BCA students graduate with 25 college credits.
In a city with a widely diverse African-American population, it is impossible to say that the students who enroll at BCA are typical of black students in the city. The majority are the children or grandchildren of immigrants from West Indian countries such as Guyana, Trinidad and Haiti, and more than half would be the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. They are mostly working class, although some are poor (73 percent of the students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch). Most were B students in middle school, had good attendance records and didn’t run into serious discipline problems.
Thomas-Daley, who looks at every application, acknowledges that the school usually does not accept students who have chronic absences, are years behind in reading or have racked up multiple suspensions – and these are often the students most at risk for dropping out. Still, the staff says most of its students were not at the top of their classes in middle school, and many come in performing below grade level.
“Our kids don’t do well [here] because they were going to do well anyway,” says Thomas-Daley, who was born in Bermuda but grew up in Crown Heights and attended city public schools. “It’s hours and hours of work – it’s 9 o’clock at night with parents, with students.”
Lynelle Rennis, an assistant principal who began as a teacher at the school in 2006, says school staff members use peer pressure to their advantage.
“We’re that corny school where kids get excited about grades,” Rennis says. “I think even if you don’t have that mentality, when you get here you realize that’s the norm … you conform. You will do well, you will succeed.”
Rennis, 43, has grouped the students by grade and gender on a one-way text app on her phone. She sends out reminders and words of wisdom about three times a week and during school breaks: Make positive choices. Respect yourself. It’s cold, so wear a jacket.
Rennis also runs a group for girls called SmHeart Girls, aimed at building up self-esteem and self-advocacy skills, and that’s where the idea for the Sophisticated Well Articulated Gentlemen’s Group came from.
“We felt there was a need,” says Bridgewater, who graduated from BCA in 2013 and was an early member of SWAGG. “On a Friday, the girls could all sit down with Ms. Rennis and discuss their problems. Why don’t we have a place like that, because we have questions, too?”
The group developed a curriculum, which included grooming tips, such as how to get a nice haircut, what a proper suit looks like and how to tie a tie. Other topics centered on how to meet and treat girls, getting good grades and what it means to be a man in today’s society.
“Some people were struggling with absent parents in general, so it’s like, ‘How do I become a man if there’s no one there to teach me?'” explains Bridgewater, who says he was a “troublemaker” in middle school before becoming an A student in high school and earning a scholarship to Howard University.
Mazin Khalil, the group’s founder and this year’s BCA commencement speaker, still comes back for meetings.
“A lot of the kids I grew up with joined gangs and didn’t even make it past eighth grade,” says Khalil, 22, who attended Public School 308 in Bedford-Stuyvesant before BCA, and graduated from Trinity College in May. “It started as a way to give kids something to do other than be on the street, but it’s become a brotherhood.”
Rennis appreciates the tight-knit group, and says last year she called Bridgewater several times when she saw younger members headed for trouble.
“I’ll go to Jude and say, ‘Listen, you better talk to your boys,’ and he’s like, ‘OK, Ms. Rennis, I got you,'” Rennis says, shaking her head and smiling. “He’ll send a group text and then tell me everything’s going to be OK. And it happens.”
The students also give credit to the teachers and administrators for supporting them.
“If they see you slacking off, they’ll tell you, ‘What’s going on, because this isn’t normally who you are?’ ” says Bridgewater, who grew up in East Flatbush. “It not only makes you feel like, ‘Wow, they actually care about me, they actually know me in a sense,’ it also encourages you to be that way with other people in the school.”
Polite says during his first years at the school, he questioned everything and bridled at the strict – and irrational, he thought – enforcement of rules, such as the uniform policy. But he says now he’s grateful for the pushback he got.
“How you say things, what you say and who you say it in front of matters, because your message is what shapes how people view you as a person,” says Polite, who lives with his mom in East Flatbush.
“Four years ago I never would have said that. I would have said it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks of you … but now, I’ve gotta be a man,” he says, glancing at Bridgewater with a smile. “He wouldn’t let me be anything less than that.”
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