Before the First School Bell, Teachers in Bronx Make House Calls

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(Courtesy of The New York Times)

ON A MISSION Shira Collado, top right, spoke to Aichetu Traore, a sixth grader, and her mother, Kadija Traore, at their home.

JASON McCORKLE, all of 11, stepped back into his family’s living room in the South Bronx wearing the gray slacks and crisp white shirt his new teachers had just handed him, tags still dangling from a sleeve. He puffed out his chest, stuffed his hands in his pockets and flashed his pearly teeth, standing near a poster of a beachfront mansion, a five-car garage and the words “Justification for Higher Education” lighted by rays of sunshine.

ON A MISSION Shira Collado, top right, spoke to Aichetu Traore, a sixth grader, and her mother, Kadija Traore, at their home. More Photos »

“Is this the first time you’ve worn a tie?” one of the teachers, Stephen Slater, asked gingerly. The burgundy strip was flush against the skin on Jason’s neck, sitting under rather than over the new shirt.

There was time to practice, Mr. Slater assured him — the first day of school was a month away — but after that, there would be no excuses. The slacks, the shirt, the tie he had struggled with and dress shoes — “no sneakers, no color other than black,” Mr. Slater warned — are required at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, where Jason would soon be a sixth grader.

The strict uniform policy would be explained in 81 living rooms over five consecutive days, as Mr. Slater and a dozen other new teachers at A.M.S., as the school is commonly known, canvassed neighborhoods in small groups to meet the incoming students and their families on their own turf.

Such home visits are common in private and charter schools, but rare among traditional public schools like A.M.S. that serve mostly poor and immigrant families in which English is not the language spoken at the kitchen table. The principal, Ken Baum, started them when the school, which now serves 590 students in grades 6 to 12, opened in 2004, because he believed it was critical for families to be involved in education. Knowing that many of his charges were being raised by single parents or grandparents, some of them living in homeless shelters, he said he “wanted to show to them that we’re an unusual school that makes unusual efforts.”

“I could have chosen to speak to the families from behind a podium in the school auditorium,” Mr. Baum said. “But if the school wants the relationship defined in a certain way, then the school needs to make the effort.”

To Mr. Baum, these early visits are a key factor in a statistic he likes to cite: 63 of the 72 seniors in A.M.S.’s first graduating class last spring received Regents diplomas, and 50 of them are headed to four-year colleges, including Cornell, Boston University, Mount Holyoke and campuses all across the State University of New York system.

The home visits are a laborious undertaking that demands a healthy dose of patience and dexterity to fulfill its most basic requirement: finding the students. Mobility is high among families in the South Bronx; contact information provided by the Department of Education is just a start.

The school’s parent coordinator, Jason Rivera, spent six weeks before the visits in August on the hunt. He knocked on the doors of those he could not reach by phone and, in some cases, pleaded for help from neighbors, building superintendents and directors of after-school programs.

NEW LOOK Jason McCorkle, 11, tried on his new school uniform.

Mr. Rivera searched for one elusive student at neighborhood playgrounds and slipped notes under the doors of others: “Congrats! Your child has been accepted at our school. I’m trying to contact you.” Of the 88 students on the sixth-grade roster, 5 remained elusive when the home visits began on Aug. 8.

For the school, the visits are intended as a welcome mat. For the families, they are a welcoming novelty. For the teachers, many of whom are in their first classroom jobs, they are an exploratory path carved under pouring rain and baking sun; past halal butchers, check-cashing joints and car repair shops; in dark, crammed apartments adorned by statues of the Virgin Mary or colorful prayer rugs.

Along the way, the young teachers tried curried chicken and cabbage, savored big chunks of watermelon with little plastic spoons and sipped from lukewarm bottles of Malta, a wheat soda that looks like stout and tastes like molasses. Crisscrossing the South Bronx by bus and on foot, they embarked on a scavenger hunt of sorts, searching for moments of connection in the 45 minutes they spent in each home.

Jerome Burgess, 23, who grew up poor and will teach seventh-grade science, yanked a smile from a shy boy by flashing a wink and a thumbs-up before they parted.

Shira Collado, 24, a humanities teacher whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, expertly debated the Giants-Eagles rivalry with an aspiring running back.

Asmaa Awad-Farid, 23, an Egyptian Muslim who will teach seventh-grade English, offered an impromptu vocabulary lesson when a girl stumbled on the word “participant” while reading the contract the school asks every student and parent to sign.

For a school that has no admission requirements — a computer at the headquarters of the Education Department selects applicants according to a complex algorithm — the contract is a powerful first line of defense, spelling out A.M.S.’s rules and philosophy. At an orientation session before the visits, Mr. Baum impressed its importance upon the teachers, who went on to try to impress it upon the students, asking them to read part of it out loud in their living rooms:

I will be respectful to everyone.

I will ask for help when I need it and offer help to others.

I will wear our school uniform every day.

The teachers carried free uniforms, along with elementary-school attendance records and emergency-contact cards, as they set out from the school on a muggy Monday morning — 13 of them, split into four teams, eager to meet the minds they would try to mold.

THE Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science sits in Morrisania, part of the poorest Congressional district in the nation and one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. The building on Bainbridge Avenue that houses it looks like a Lego creation of multicolored tiles and jutting walls. One parent calls it “the happy building.”

Ms. Collado, Katy Cheung and Stephen Slater walked to their next visit.

The school’s mission, spelled out on its Web site, is to “prepare students to become critical thinkers capable of successful pursuits after high school.” To Mr. Baum, 45, that means getting them into college.

He was on his way to getting a Ph.D. in math when he decided he did not want to spend his life in academia. After trying his hand as a stockbroker pushing socially responsible mutual funds — “it wasn’t easy to make a living doing that,” he said — Mr. Baum in 2001 joined the New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative-certification program that fast-tracks people into classrooms.

He taught math for two years in Harlem and Washington Heights and, in 2004, was in the first class of graduates from the New York City Leadership Academy, the Bloomberg administration’s signature training program for aspiring principals. “I really wanted to effect change on a larger scale,” Mr. Baum said, “to impact more than just the kids I saw in my classroom.”

LESSON No. 1: Smile.

“Smile a lot,” Mr. Baum told the teachers at the orientation session. “And remember: ‘Uniform, uniform, uniform. College, success, success.’ Saying those words every few minutes helps.”

They were sitting in a semicircle in a first-floor classroom, facing the blackboard and the teacher’s chair, from which Mr. Baum doled out tips for a successful home visit.

Lesson No. 2: Convey a sense of urgency, but do not lecture.

Lesson No. 3: Do not judge.

“The adult you are scheduled to see may not be the child’s biological parent,” Mr. Baum noted.

A five-page document explained what the visits were meant to accomplish: deliver a free uniform, collect contact information, help families figure out how to get students to school on time. (Sometimes, that means showing them how to set an alarm clock.)

Mr. Rivera, 32, the parent coordinator, grew up in the neighborhood, and still remembers the one time a school official came to his house to talk to his parents; his sister had been acting out in class. When he joined A.M.S. two years ago, he said, he was surprised to learn that home visits were routine, and that finding the students to set up the appointments would be the hardest part of his job.

He has approached the task with precision, importing student names onto a color-coded Excel file: green for those with appointments scheduled; blue for those whose admissions are pending results of summer school; yellow for children who have been accepted but whose parents are not sure they will enroll.

“Please, remember that we’re counting on you to keep all of your appointments,” Mr. Rivera told the teachers as the orientation session wrapped up. (As it turned out, two appointments were missed during the week; Mr. Rivera and two teachers went back out to meet those families on Aug. 25.)

This year, Mr. Baum required the teachers to use only public transportation for the visits so they would understand the commutes of up to an hour some students will have. So before the session broke up, Mr. Rivera made sure his troops all had MetroCards and helped them decipher the South Bronx’s web of bus lines.

“The Bx11 and the Bx35 are your crosstown buses,” he said. “The Bx15 runs along Third Avenue. The Bx41 runs on Webster.”

“What’s Webster?” Ms. Awad-Farid, who grew up in Detroit, whispered to no one in particular.

MR. SLATER dashed across Claremont Parkway, dodging traffic to reach a stopped bus so he could ask the driver for directions. By the time he got there, one of his teammates, Katy Cheung, already had it all figured out.

“Google Maps says it’s 35 minutes to the destination, between riding the bus and walking,” she announced.

Ms. Cheung, 24, is starting her third year as a teacher, which makes her an exception: 10 of the 13 home visitors will be teaching full time for the first time this fall. Of those, 5 are Teaching Fellows and 2 are in the Teach for America program; their average age is 24. (The average age of the school’s 51 teachers, Mr. Baum said, is 27.)

From a seat at the back of the Bx11, Mr. Slater, Ms. Cheung and Ms. Collado divvied up tasks: Ms. Cheung, who carried the uniforms in her backpack, was charged with distributing them. Ms. Collado, who had the attendance records, would stress the importance of never being late. Mr. Slater could handle the contracts.

A few minutes later, they were on a couch on the second floor of a two-story house on Woodycrest Avenue where the curtains were drawn and the walls were a shade of pink. Mr. Slater asked that the television be turned off, as Mr. Baum had instructed.

“How do you wake up in the morning?” Ms. Collado asked the sixth-grader-to-be, Alicia Capellan, who is 10 and too small for the smallest of the uniform pants Ms. Cheung had with her.

“My mom,” Alicia said.

Her mother, Clara Peña, 31, is a city bus driver. She relies on a niece to watch Alicia and her 12-year-old brother while she is at work. They live in a quiet patch of the Highbridge neighborhood, not far from Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic school Ms. Peña said she could not afford.

Alicia would be commuting 30 minutes on the Bx11, alongside a cousin who is starting seventh grade at A.M.S.

“Is it safe to walk from the school to the bus stop after dark?” Ms. Peña asked. Other parents would echo the question, along with some other favorites: Is there an after-school program (yes, until 4:30 p.m.), does the school serve breakfast (yes, at 7:50 a.m.), and is there a football team (no, but there is soccer).

If Ms. Cheung was the fast-talking disciplinarian and Ms. Collado the older sister every girl wished she had, Mr. Slater played the levelheaded uncle, reassuring student after student that there could be deep meaning in the simplest of actions, like putting on the school’s uniform.

“Getting used to it, understanding why we ask that you wear it and wearing it with pride,” he told Alicia. “That’s going to help put you on a path to success, on a path to college, and that’s what we’re preparing you for.”

Mr. Slater is on a quest of his own, having converted to Judaism two years ago after growing up as the son of Christian missionaries in West Africa.

“I was looking for a way to live the biblical myth that I had been taught as a child,” he said, “like keeping the Sabbath, and to have a community to do it with.”

Teaching, for Mr. Slater, “is my mission.” Teaching Fellows allowed him to get into a classroom quickly while helping underwrite his master’s degree in education.

Mr. Burgess, the teacher who got the shy boy to smile, took a more traditional route, paying his way through a master’s at Fordham University — he owes about $70,000 in student loans — before applying for a job.

Mr. Burgess has wanted to be a teacher for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Rochester, one of seven children, supported by housing subsidies and welfare checks.

“We had these little desks our mom got for us,” he recalled, “and I’d have some of my brothers and sisters sit there, then I’d stand by the wall and pretend I was teaching them.”

THERE were problems the teachers could fix and those they quickly realized they could not.

They could tell the parent who became confused and went to the school to meet them to come on back home; they would be waiting.

They could reassure a boy that he looked handsome in his school uniform, but they could do nothing about the cockroaches scurrying around him. They could list the great things that awaited a 12-year-old girl in sixth grade, but they could not convince her mother, who has an 8-year-old with a learning disability who failed kindergarten three times, that schools cared equally about their charges.

Each morning of home-visit week began back in that first-floor classroom, where Mr. Baum teased out of his young teachers the small victories and the unwinnable battles they had experienced the day before.

Ms. Awad-Farid made everybody laugh one morning as she told of drinking soda out of colorful cocktail glasses at one student’s home, “like those glasses you get at a Hard Rock Cafe.”

“The mom kept on saying, ‘No one has ever done that to us before,’ ” she added. That is, no teacher had visited to introduce the family to the school.

“That’s really awesome,” Mr. Baum said.

Then, he posed a question to the room: “What’s one big thing that you’ve learned so far?”

“The funny thing is, I’m the teacher, but I feel like the kids have a lot to teach me,” Mr. Slater said as he left. “And there’s still a lot for me to learn.”




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