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Up the Up Staircase

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from the magazine

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.

Up Next
from the magazine

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The Rebirth of P.S. 67
Kay S. Hymowitz

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