City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
Up the Up Staircase
At Manhattan's Wildcat Academy, the city's most troubled youngsters have a chance to succeed.
Spring 1994

Jimmy R.’s story is the kind that numbs many New Yorkers hardened by nightmare statistics of juvenile chaos. He was 15 when his parents died; when he went to live with his 68-year-old aunt, she had these comforting words: “Stay in line or I’m sending you to a home.”

A student with a ninety average at Julia Richman High School, Jimmy did what many youngsters might do when dealt a hand so hard: he gave up. His average plunged to forty. He was expelled from the Boys Choir of Harlem. He took up with a bunch of toughs and stopped going to school.

But Jimmy’s descent into the netherworld of underclass adolescent life seems to have been reversed. Last fall, he entered New York City’s Wildcat Academy, a voluntary, alternative school that dedicates itself to the proposition that many kids like Jimmy (all students’ names have been changed throughout this article) who have been suspended, truant, or even violent can be straightened out in the environment of this unusual school. It’s early on—Wildcat accepted its first students in the fall of 1992—but the school offers a glimpse into some encouraging answers to one of the most pressing social questions today: how to educate our most troubled, impoverished students. At the same time, it raises some disturbing questions—if any more were needed!—about the inadequacies of urban American high schools in dealing with the conditions of childhood today. To set foot into Wildcat Academy is to enter a world few would recognize as school. It is located near the Manhattan entrance to the Holland tunnel, encircled by looming, anonymous warehouses. Cars and trucks race by on their way to somewhere else, but no one seems to live or work there. Occupying one floor of one of these ex-warehouses whose history can still be traced in the gauged concrete floors, Wildcat’s warren of rooms opens off a large central hallway. There is no gym; in the center is the cafeteria—a large cubicle with some linoleum tables, actually—which sometimes doubles as a classroom and auditorium.

But in these modest surroundings dwells a strong and fresh spirit that cannot be fully captured by conventional educational formulas. Yes, the staff is serious about rules: no hats, beepers, sunglasses, or radios; no leaving the building at any time including lunch. The staircases are alarmed, and a staff of 13 adults for 125 students-six teachers, three case managers, three security guards, and a headmaster-make cutting class just about impossible. Ron Tabano, the headmaster, has been known to verify the supposed train delays of stragglers. Pregnant girls are asked to leave until the birth of their children. Those who disrupt or sleep in class are immediately confronted. And all of this from 9 A.M. until 5 P.M., in many cases for 12 months a year.

Though order reigns, the atmosphere of Wildcat is more communal than institutional. Because of its small size, the staff knows not only all the students’ names but their individual quirks and often soul-bruising histories. Case managers insist on meeting with a parent or guardian before accepting a new student. They will also confer with a student’s boss, take a cool-down stroll with a student when he is jumpy, and, if necessary, accompany him to a court hearing. When summer comes, students who are not working or visiting relatives are looked after in a combined school-job program. Graduates are not merely sent off with a handshake and a diploma. The school helps find them jobs or provides the support they need to enter college—arranging for SAT exams, visits to campuses, and help in filling out applications.

In short, Wildcat sets out to provide the combination of discipline, guidance, and genuine concern that is missing in so many of these kids’ beleaguered lives. Indeed, for most of these students, it’s probably safe to say this is a first. A number of them live in group homes presided over by social workers, and many of those who do live with their parents have miserable stories to tell: a 17-year old boy who is forced to sleep in the apartment hallway during his father’s frequent assignations, another whose drug-addicted mother has evidently forgotten she has a child to feed. Sharon Romano, the school’s energetic social studies teacher, says she sometimes overhears students’ squeals of disbelief as they recount for their friends a case manager’s pursuit of their whereabouts.

In this respect, Wildcat couldn’t be less like the giant holding pens these students have been forced to call school in the past. Rosy, a swaggering but edgy 16-year-old, says she spent a year at Taft High School in the Bronx, one of the city’s most notorious, carousing with her friends in the lunchroom. Didn’t anyone notice? She shrugs. Teachers never stopped her from sauntering out of a class, and security guards were in on her scam: “They winked at me; sometimes they even might play a quick game of Monte.” For other Wildcat kids, the indifference of the adults around them reinforced the anarchy of their neighborhood and home lives. Eventually they were suspended from their previous schools for fighting, threatening teachers, or carrying weapons.

Wildcat’s benign surveillance—what one educator has called “a conspiracy of adults”—seems to be working. Two students have signed up to take classes at Manhattan Community College during the spring semester. In 1994, ten kids are expected to graduate; at least two seem headed for college. Even more impressive are the attendance rates, which surpass 88 percent, versus 81 percent at the city’s traditional academic high schools and less than 60 percent at the alternative schools housing a population similar to Wildcat’s. After initial indifference, Wildcat students have asked for school rings for seniors. Amalia Betanzos, the school’s president, embodies its communal spirit as she sweeps through the academy, hugs or tousles the hair of a favored youngster, and is greeted with frequent calls of “Hey, Miss B.” “Kids with court records and parole officers haven’t gotten into trouble since they started here,” she says. “Some of the worst cases care the most about the school.”

Betanzos is actually quite a bit more than the school’s president; she is part guardian angel, part accountant, part taskmaster. The combination suits a woman whose shrewdness and clear vision undergird a gentle demeanor and warm laugh. Since 1978, she has been president of Wildcat Services Corporation, housed on three other floors at 161 Hudson. Founded in 1972, the nonprofit organization trains, counsels, and finds jobs for long-term welfare mothers, ex-convicts, and addicts. According to several different studies, Wildcat Services places around 70 percent of its clients, and the recidivism of ex-offenders has been unusually low. One of Wildcat Services’ graduates, Susannah Gonzalez, a single mother of three, is now the cheerful secretary to the headmaster of the sixth-floor academy. Several mothers of Wildcat Academy students have also been referred to Wildcat Services for training.

A former commissioner of New York City’s Youth Services Agency, Betanzos was a Koch appointee to the Board of Education from 1988 to 1990. Carlos Medina and Seymour Fliegel, the East Harlem school reformers who are now senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation, visited Wildcat Services and were impressed with its success. They observed that troubled high school students could benefit from the kind of support services Wildcat offered, so they suggested that she form her own school. The idea, as Betanzos later put it in the academy’s prospectus, was to “apply everything we have learned about serving the people most in need for over twenty years to young adults who have had tremendous difficulty staying in school. Our expertise in developing effective services for the least employable will now be used to reach youth everyone else has failed to help.”

Betanzos’s timing was propitious. Then chancellor Joseph Fernandez was already planning alternative schools for precisely the same students who interested her. He gave the nod, though that didn’t make the early days easy. Community District 1 balked, a certificate of occupancy took some finagling, and, despite a contract and a budget of $750,000 from the Board of Education, referrals from counselors at the city’s worst high schools were so spotty that Wildcat opened with only two students—who the next day, much to their irritation, found their pictures and biographies in Newsday under the title A SCHOOL FOR “TROUBLEMAKERS.” Though the school was contracted to take 125 students, the first year population never exceeded 87.

At first, kids brought the ways of the mean streets and their previous schools with them, as evidenced by the number of knives found through periodic sweeps with a metal detector. But as the conspiring adults persisted and insisted, cajoled and scolded, their values sank in. Weapons have disappeared. According to Betanzos, now it is often longtime Wildcat students who explain to belligerent newcomers: “That’s not the way we do things here.”

Enriching Young Lives

Crucial to Betanzos’s vision, one she was well equipped to institute, was an interplay of academic studies and job experience. Any student able and willing is placed in an internship, at sites including the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, the Coast Guard station at Governor’s Island, and several private law firms. Their jobs are varied: painting, electrical and plumbing assistance, word processing, answering phones and filing, groundskeeping, stocking shelves, cashiering, ferry boat maintenance.

The importance of this two-pronged approach is impossible to overstate. In some cases—such as that of John B., who is assisting in the architecture department at Pratt Institute—students’ jobs provide an intermediary step to a long dreamt-of profession. “A lot of kids can’t just sit from 9 to 5,” says Tabano. “It’s very different to be active, to work with your hands.” And, he adds, “because they are paid, it keeps them from being tempted to make money on the street by selling drugs.”

Working at a job serves an even more basic function, the case managers explain: it renders mainstream life intelligible. For kids who have spent their early years adapting to the style and ethos of the street, where unemployed dropouts rule, this is an essential lesson—one they may not be able to learn in the classroom. “We can tell them certain things till we’re blue in the face—about their dress, manners, or language—but until they’re asked to put it into practice, it may or it may not sink in,” says case manager Wiley Owens. “If you put kids in job sites where they actually see other people dressing and behaving that way, most of them want to fit in.”

Success at a job also seems to clarify the purpose and routines of the classroom. It is as if a job brings into focus the lines of the social contract that read, “Work and you will be rewarded,” without which education appears nonsensical. Says Owens: “There’s a percentage of students who you may not be able to reach through counseling, you may not be able to reach through a school setting, but you send them out to work and they come around. We try to see if a job can change a kid.” Jacqueline Martinez, another case worker, describes one angry girl “with a big mouth and always ready to fight” who as a last resort was sent to a clerical job at the Intrepid. In a few months, her behavior at school cooled down.

Wildcat teachers intuitively grasp that they are tutors in the social contract as much as instructors in a specific subject. “To a certain extent what we’re doing here is damage control,” Sharon Romano acknowledges. “We are trying to make functional, literate people for this society. I do that through the medium of social studies. But we are not a ’dump’ school. We have standards. We stick to our part of the bargain. They have to stick to theirs.”

The school’s art teacher, Luba Koziolkowsky, doubles as an instructor of Spanish and sometimes English. Koziolkowsky says she was immediately struck by the artistic gifts of many of her students. “I saw they could do it even when they told me they couldn’t,” she explains intently. “I didn’t let them give up. These kids believe everything can be done in 15 minutes. It’s not due to a lack of intelligence; they never see anything produced and have no idea what goes into it.” Her faith in their gifts proved well-founded: Wildcat recently won first place in a high school art competition at Sotheby’s, and two students actually sold their work.

Wildcat teachers have tried to individualize instruction as much as possible. Kids work at the school’s 13 computers or answer questions on handouts while teachers move from one to another and help them out—an arrangement made essential when many students alternate weeks between a job and school and when they possess such a wide range of academic ability, interest, and experience. Tabano admits that Wildcat, like so many American schools, suffers from an air of academic fragmentation, and he views this as the next major challenge. He has asked several teachers to spend the summer developing a coherent curriculum. The Center for Educational Innovation recently arranged for a visit to the South Bronx’s Mohegan School, which uses E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program.

Betanzos is also determined that her students have the sorts of enriching experiences middle-class kids can take for granted. In deference to school hours far longer than their peers must endure, classes from 3:00 to 5:00 are given over to music, art, photography, and drama. A professional actor and a jazz musician come in four times a week. Alfred Laforey, one of the case managers, sometimes plays chess with students during lunch or after school. Despite the lack of a gym, Wildcat has a basketball team, and a track team is planned. Twelve students went on an Outward Bound trip in 1993 and another 12 were scheduled for March 1994. When Betanzos spoke to the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus in Albany, she took two students with her. Another few traveled to Washington for the National Puerto Rican Convention. When several students asked for a class trip to the Great Adventure Amusement Park, the outing of choice at many schools, she refused: “You can only go someplace educational.” Instead of riding the Scream Machine, these startled teenagers found themselves in Philadelphia, visiting Ben Franklin’s house and the Liberty Bell. “They loved it,” she laughs.

Confronting School Violence

The vexing question of what to do with chronically disruptive students is as old as universal compulsory education. In 1948, the New York City Board of Education began to pull difficult students—the “socially maladjusted” in the terminology of those days—out of their neighborhood schools and collect them into institutions known, for obscure bureaucratic reasons, as “600 Schools.” The 600 Schools were not all bad. They were small—class size was kept under 18—and there were quite a few success stories of kids straightening out and going on to college. But conditions were often notoriously jail like; these were involuntary, de facto segregated institutions for black and Hispanic males staffed largely by teachers on what one veteran has called “punishment tour.” The quality of instruction was generally poor and punctuated often enough by pummeling and shoving.

The 600 Schools met their first significant legal challenge in the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, requiring school districts to provide suitable instruction for kids with “special needs.” A 1977 court order mandating due process for entrants to the schools was the final blow. Out of these changes the current special education system, with its more fine-tuned professional assessment, was born. The catchall label “socially maladjusted” faded away and, with it, the 75 remaining 600 Schools.

But discipline problems did not. Administrators were left with three options: suspension, school transfer, or, in a few extreme instances, expulsion. In most cases, a student would be suspended for a few days and then return to the scene of the crime; his unexpected vacation was often worn as a badge of honor. “There’s a terrible image problem with the other kids,” says Betanzos. “For students who get to go back to the old school, suspension is if anything a prize. And if they were sent to a new school, the first thing a principal would do would be threaten them: ’Get out of line once and you’re out.’ There was no feeling they were wanted, nothing remedial. It was just part of a vicious cycle.”

With school violence increasingly making headlines—in the 1992-93 school year New York City public schools recorded 2,313 “serious incidents”—the pressure is on for new answers. There are three general approaches. The first and most bald is to call in the police. As one of his first directives on taking office, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed “safe school zones” around the city’s most dangerous schools. Inside, the halls are already patrolled by the Board of Education’s force of three thousand security guards. In addition, the board has installed metal detectors and magnetic door locks whose already high cost now must be supplemented by extra training for the guards who can’t yet use them.

Though it’s been around for almost a decade, the second approach, conflict resolution, appears to be finding its place in the sun. Conflict resolution entails offering classes in the “communication skill” of “resolving disputes nonviolently.” It was recently backed by Jesse Jackson and Chancellor Ramon Cortines at a hearing of the state Commission for the Study of Youth Crime and Violence chaired by Andrew Stein. Conflict resolution has been mandated in all city high schools and strongly recommended to elementary and middle schools. Mediation centers to be staffed by experts are also being considered. According to Newsday, the total cost of instituting a complete program would run between $45 million and $60 million.

These approaches, though they differ considerably, both reflect the limits of the bureaucratic thinking out of which they arose, as well as the limits of our current high schools. For starters, both of them can become expensive as layers of experts or high-tech equipment lead to more offices, more programs, more staff. But there is another, more basic flaw in both of these approaches, which the story of Wildcat helps highlight: they attempt to deal with violence without addressing the general climate of school chaos. In a recent article in American Educator, Jackson Toby, director of the Institute of Criminological Research at Rutgers University, argues compellingly that gun-toting, knife-wielding students are merely the next step beyond the student who obscenely mouths off to a teacher, who is upping the ante of the student who struts out of class to hang out in the halls as he casually drops gum wrappers on the floor, who in turn follows the lead of the student jiving to the sounds coming from his Walkman as his teacher drones on about cell division.

In other words, school violence evolves out of a general atmosphere of disorder and demoralization. Without exception, schools with the highest numbers of violent incidents also have high rates of truancy and low academic achievement. Rob Terte, spokesman for the Board of Education, unquestionably speaks the truth when he argues that “kids bring the disarray and problems of their poverty into the schools with them.”

But Wildcat reminds us that schools are not only passive receptors of social problems; they are themselves social institutions that shape mores. In a small, relatively independent school like Wildcat, as in many private schools, those mores can find clear, simple expression in the adults who do the teaching and disciplining. As James Coleman observed in his research on parochial schools, the sense of family that is possible in such small institutions is key.

But in large, centrally organized high schools the moral climate has become increasingly controlled by an external bureaucracy that is, by necessity, essentially legalistic and technocratic. Gerald Grant of the University of Syracuse, who has written with great subtlety about the breakdown of authority in American public high schools, gives the example of a teacher who was verbally abused by a student. When asked why she didn’t report him, she answered, “Well, it wouldn’t have done any good....I didn’t have any witnesses.” Implicitly supporting students’ rights above any sense of personal responsibility or shared values, the schools, Grant writes, “threaten to become a container for adolescents who receive the ministrations of a greatly enlarged core of specialists in a setting where presumed equals argue about their rights and individuals pursue their moral preferences in whatever direction they please, as long as they do not break the law.”

Seen in this light, the addition of police and conflict resolution programs, with their legalistic and managerial presumptions, seems like more of the same old medicine. These approaches have nothing to say about how to nourish a network of binding relations that both engages children’s affections and demands their respect. It should be clear to anyone who thinks about it that while giant, soulless laissez-faire institutions may work with kids who come from communities that are still communal and families that are still familial, for today’s kids—and to listen to suburban teachers, this includes more than inner-city kids—they are quite simply a disaster. At any rate, talking to Wildcat students about the apathy and disorder of their previous schools leads one to the conclusion that to address only violence in many of the city’s worst institutions may be rather like trying to cure a cancer in a patient with advanced dementia. Crime control will not a school make.

It is this stubborn truth that the third approach to school violence—the small academy with individualized instruction and social services—attempts to address. The New York City Board of Education has initiated a program for four borough academies. The first, Fordham Heights Academy in the Bronx, opened in September 1993; the Queens and Manhattan academies will open sometime in 1994.

But Wildcat is in a singular position to make a radical departure from the dying inner-city schools for one reason above all: it functions on the fringes of the bureaucracy. Wildcat operates in a kind of limited partnership with 110 Livingston, which provides most of the funds. Carlos Medina says Wildcat “represents the beginning of the charter school movement in New York City,” which he expects will lead to the creation of many more schools that operate independently of typical bureaucratic constraints. With a budget of $525,000, Wildcat costs much the same as other alternative schools, but it operates far more efficiently. “When I need something like computer programs,” Betanzos says, “I can get bids and purchase them in one day. When a sink breaks, I don’t have to fill out forms and wait; I just call a plumber.” The effect on the school’s morale should be obvious.

The same simple responsiveness can be seen on a personal level. Where a large system regulates and abstracts—or, to put it another way, technologizes—human connection, a small, relatively independent school can bend to the needs of its population. Ron Tabano says that if he went by the book, he could not mandate that his kids attend school until 5 P.M. or during the summer—never mind that that’s what they need. Union rules require that teachers have lunch breaks, which they cannot, as Wildcat staff often do, spend with students who need their attention. At Wildcat, teachers’ duties are not specialized; they often work up transcripts, organize the library, even clean the floors if a maintenance person calls in sick. By the book, case managers would not be able to require parents or guardians of new students to meet with them—never mind that this draws families into the school, reinforces the “conspiracy of adults,” and fleshes out the individuality of students.

Most importantly, Wildcat can handpick its staff—teachers, case managers, and even security guards. The effect of this freedom can be felt vividly on meeting these individuals. Wildcat is filled with people who share a view of both the students and the school’s purpose—and who want to be there. Simply put, Wildcat has been given the freedom to escape a system and create a cohesive community, precisely what these orphans of the street and the anonymous mega-high school need.

This cohesion is evident in many ways. Case managers originally divided up their work so that each student belonged to one of them. “The kids tried to play us off each other,” says Alfred Laforey. “And if one of us was out, they wouldn’t talk to another.” No more. At first, applicants were interviewed alone; case managers insisted a parent or guardian attend the intake interview, so there would be a clear understanding that their support was needed. At the last parent-teacher conferences, attendance—which for most parents required long subway rides from the far reaches of the city—was an impressive 50 percent.

As a community, Wildcat seems to have lifted the veil off the bureaucratically coded relationship between specialist-experts and their client-students to reveal, very simply, adults and children. Wildcat can disconcert the visitor who is used to thinking of its population in legal or media terms as “youths” or “juveniles”; for teachers like Luba Koziolkowsky they are merely “children.” This is a chord struck frequently by the staff, from security guard to president. “One thing outsiders can’t see is that these are just kids,” Tabano told me around Christmas time. “I know how tough they seem. But these tough guys were jostling to get a turn decorating the tree yesterday. They asked for a tree; it’s unlikely many will have one at home.”

Affection is palpable. Students are called “sweetie” or “honey,” are patted on the head or grabbed teasingly by the arm. Indeed, Betanzos says she wants the school to “coddle” its kids. But one is left with an impression far more complex than this. During my last visit to Wildcat, I asked one somber-looking boy to speak with me. He looked away, slowly shook his head, and said, “You’ll only write something bad about us. That’s what you all do.” Puzzled at first because the reporting on Wildcat has been largely favorable, I then recalled the Newsday headline about a “school for troublemakers.” “The police think these kids are useless, the city thinks they’re useless, their parents think they’re useless,” says Koziolkowsky. “They know that and it hurts. They are very proud.” Every staff member I spoke with insisted on the need to respect this sense of wounded pride—”Never ’dis’ a student in front of his friends,” Tabano warned—not out of any fear or false notion of equality, but out of a genuine belief that under the tutelage of adults they can trust, most of them will seek an opportunity to reinvent themselves and their futures.

Should this happen it will be because Wildcat is a place where discipline and clear expectations are tempered by personal affection and respect. If this formula sounds vaguely familiar, it should. It is the traditional prescription for child-rearing at its best, one sadly lost in many parts of America today—not least in the large, bureaucratically organized high school.

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