El Puente’s Full Circle: How a Youth Center Gave Birth to a School
Brooklyn, New YorkThe hulking old brick structure that once housed St. Mary of the Angels Church lies along Williamsburg's forlorn waterfront, home to a predominantly poor Latino community.
Pocked by empty lots, a garbage incinerator, a toxic-waste storage plant and crowded apartment buildings, the neighborhood looks like a grim wasteland - a scrap heap for society's ills. Traffic whizzes by the bridge and the expressway that isolate it from the rest of the borough. At the local high school, graduation rates hover around 20 percent. Violence plagues the streets.
Yet, inside the former Catholic church now headquarters of El Puente, a youth center that also has created a School chartered by the New York City Board of Education there is an electric atmosphere of hope and purpose. A sense of conviction pervades the young people, who attend classes under stained glass windows, that they can and are changing their neighborhood's bleak environment –their world.
Speaking of a recent project to successfully persuade City Hall to plant more trees in the neighborhood, llth grader Geimy Colon said it made her "feel a sense of connection to the community."
A Growing Phenomena
Such rhetoric rubs off from Frances Lucerna, 44, and her husband, Luis Garden Acosta, 50, Williamsburg natives and social activists who co-founded El Puente in 1982 and started its El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice three years ago. The school now has 110 students in grades 9, 10 and 11 and plans to expand enrollment to 300 after adding grades 7, 8 and 12.
"We see our mission to reclaim our community and our young people,” says Lucerna, a Hunter College graduate with a masters degree in education, and former professional dancer who directs the academy.
“The right to breathe clean air is not something we can take for granted,” adds Acosta, alluding to the activist tenor of the curriculum.
The academy is one of more than 30 small, theme-based public schools that have sprung up in New York in recent, years. It is at the cutting edge of a small-school revolution that is extending to Chicago and Denver, among other cities, to replace large, impersonal public institutions that all too often fail to educate youth. The experiment is being watched carefully by educational experts around the country.
Some like Ann Hallett of Cross City Campaigns for Big City Schools, a Chicago-based advocate of school reform, call El Puente (The Bridge, in Spanish) a "wonderful" example of an alternative social structure setting up a school committed to engaging students in learning. "What's so wonderful about El Puente is that there isn't any break between the school and the community," she said. The two are completely interwoven with each other," noting how the center keeps its doors open into the evening to serve youth and young adults.
Others like Diane Ravitch, an assistant education secretary under former President George Bush, who currently teaches education and history at New York University, fear that adding social action to lessons can lead to political indoctrination. "Part of teaching is to get students to think more deeply and not go out and carry picketing signs," said Ravitch, stressing that she has not visited the academy. "If you're only exposed to problems with one solution, is that a good solution for life? They should expose students to views that are different from their own - thinking is hard work."
Conservative Chester Finn, a fellow at the Dan Quayle-affiliated Hudson Institute, deems El Puente Academy's curriculum "left-wing." But he says that the relationship-building he has observed there may have won him over, although he wants to see the long-term results of the school before forming a real opinion.
"All I know is that when you go there, it feels pretty good. If the school connects with the kids and get them to take an interest in education and not get in trouble, I'm willing to go along with a curriculum I may not have an intellectual respect for."
"El Puente Academy is a vision for identifying the contributions young people can make to rebuilding communities and finding ways to make social change happen," says Tom Dewar of Minneapolis-based Rainbow Research Inc., a consultant performing a case study on community-based school reform commissioned by the Kettering Foundation.
Engaging Kids in Learning
“Their vision is not about how to deal with a few marginal, 'at-risk' children. El Puente is saying, 'this is the way education should be done; whatever your home community, some of your home values should be present in education so that there is a connection.'"
How does that work in practice?
A science class discussion of New York City's effort to build another incinerator in South Williamsburg recently fueled troubling questions, hot debate, and a students' plan to demonstrate against it. "People act as if, if you put an incinerator right here, It won't get to them. But incinerators shouldn't be built around people," 11th grader Jennifer Suarez told her classmates. "How are we going to expand the future and have another generation if pollutants are going to kill people?"
When several Williamsburg children died of the measles two years ago, biology students organized a measles immunization drive for the neighborhood. And it was a student survey of green spots that led to the tree-plantings promoted by Geimy Colon.
Both Suarez and Colon had been on the verge of dropping out of the large schools they left behind. They say they have found here something absent in the bigger schools: care, safety, the sense that learning has a purpose, and that their opinion counts. "It's a school that cares about people," says Suarez.
Colon had "given up on myself," she recalls. Her teachers would tell her, "If you don't want to learn, don't learn, I'm still getting my paycheck." When she came to the academy for an interview, she was ashamed of her bad grades. But she fell in love with the building and the warmth of the people she met. Now, environmental projects have gotten her interested in school. A straight A student, she's taken college courses this year and plans on becoming a biologist.
The schools eight Board of Education-certified teachers are called "facilitators" who say they learn as – such from the students, whom they call "young people," as they themselves teach. "I'm not only a facilitator, I'm also the basketball coach, the guy they can trust, a friend they hang out with," says Hector Calderon, 30, a charismatic youth worker who helped create El Puente's after-school youth center.
Calderon says that attending a big, violent South Bronx high school himself spurred him to work at El Puente. "Our students see facilitators who look like them. We have gone through what they have gone through, we are real people, and it inspires them."
While many at the academy are young teachers on their first assignments who are attracted by the school's unorthodox structure, other teachers have transferred from the traditional schools in search of a smaller environment and an integrated approach to education. Alfa Anderson came to recreate for her students the small-town feel she had experienced as a child growing up in rural Georgia, where teachers, students and parents attended the same church. "People don't live in a vacuum, and education doesn't take place in a vacuum," Anderson says. "The sense of community is what gives you roots - it really grounds you so that you can fly. And education gives you roots and wings so that you can fly."
How well is the experiment progressing academically?
The New York State Regents competency test results show that students at the academy outscore their peers at comparable neighborhood high schools in basic skills such as math and reading; the passing rate is almost 100 percent.
Director Lucerna says because the school's approach is interdisciplinary, students become hooked on learning - including the basics - as they become more and more involved in improving their community.
"They educate students through community issues while taking them through very rigorous intellectual standards," observes Michelle Fine of the City University of New York Graduate Center, who's evaluating the academy for the Public Education Fund Networks in Washington, with a grant from the Ford Foundation.
Genesis of a Youth Center
In philosophy, the school is an extension of the deep community concerns that impelled Acosta and Lucerna to set up El Puente with the aid of grants from the New York Community Trust, the New York Foundation and help from many community volunteers. They converted the former church into a youth center modeled loosely after the integrated, comprehensive approach toward youths needs pioneered by The Door in Manhattan and then added a health clinic, an arts center, a parent action center, sports and other activities meant to help young people grow.
From the onset, Acosta wanted the center to be in touch with political realities, and from the "social service" model, which he believes hampers the growth of young people by not looking at their whole beings, and more into political reality. Acosta himself had ditched an ambition to become a priest after six years of study because of the Catholic church's "institutional racism" and because "inside the church I wouldn't make the kind of difference I wanted to make."
So he took his activism to the streets, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, joining the Young Lords Party, the Latino revolutionary youth movement that had its counterpart in the Black Panthers, and soon become a leader of the group. But that wasn't enough.
What he couldn't accomplish as a priest, Acosta felt he could as a medical doctor. At 25, he enrolled at Harvard Medical School. But once again, he became disillusioned because "there was not one Puerto Rican doctor" at the school. He quit in his fourth year to pursue other ways of "supporting the struggle of our community."
After running a music-based radio program called "Doctor Salsa's Medicine Show," he returned to New York City to syndicate the show, and because "the community was calling me again." Back in Williamsburg, he took a job as associate executive director of Greenpoint Hospital. Dismayed by the deteriorated condition of the hospital, he led a successful campaign to close it in 1981 and a year later with Frances Lucerna, whom he had met when they were teenage members of Young Christian Workers In Williamsburg, founded El Puente. The youth center has been in the thick of politics ever since.
In 1988, El Puente youth center members helped elect the first Latino parent on the local school board. They demonstrated against a toxic-waste storage plant, against police brutality and, in a breakthrough move, enlisted members of the neighboring Satmar Hasidim, a Jewish sect, in fighting the city's plan for another garbage incinerator.
The civic achievements of the center's teenage members contrasted sharply with their dismal academic performances in public secondary schools. At El Puente, Lucerna said, kids were not only learning academic skills by connecting issues with their lives, "they were also understanding some greater and broader issues, politically and sociologically, revealing why these conditions exist in a community like ours - a poor community of color - and what the responsibilities of government are. Then, the young people themselves started organizing and understanding what their rights were, too."
Genesis of a School
The contrast persuaded El Puente's two leaders to envision creating a school based on the same philosophy. It would be a "movement" school committed to community peace and justice, one that viewed youths as "social beings" who can only grow within the context of their community.
"The purpose of education is to create a community," Acosta says, explaining his concept. "Why did people create institutions? Why did people create schools? To continue a community, to nurture the next generation with the traditions, the habits, the skills, and the world views of the community."
The opportunity to go ahead presented itself three years ago when the non-profit Fund for New York City Public Education and the city Board of Education formed a partnership to join public and private money to help reshape the deteriorated secondary public education system. The Fund invited bids for innovative public high schools to be planned "from the ground up" by community groups, parents and teachers.
Only 16 theme-based schools that offered the highest academic standards, were small and non-discriminatory would receive $25,000 start-up grants from the Aaron Diamond Foundation. They would be called New Vision Schools.
El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice was one of them. It opened in 1993 with 60 ninth graders, planning to add one grade each year and grow to 300 grade 7-12 students. Other New Vision Schools' themes range from music and science to community organizing: in the Bronx, the Health Opportunities Program School offers internships at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital; Manhattan's New York City Museum School uses museums as a backdrop for learning; Brooklyn's Oceanhill-Brownville Secondary School focuses on the arts and new technology.
Attempts at instituting reforms by creating "alternative" schools had been tried before in New York (and elsewhere), but this was the first time community groups joined forces with the school administration to create new "regular, or mainstream" schools aimed at truly reforming the system.
Indeed, from the Board of Education to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the School Chancellor, education partners that had traditionally frowned upon "alternative" schools, became fully involved in designing El Puente Academy and the other New Visions Schools. That the new schools complied with union contracts and teachers certifications helped them overcome many of the hurdles involved in community organizations working with a school administration, participants in the process say. "El Puente is the example of a community organization starting a public school and how that can be done," says UFT's Joseph Colletti.
Bending Some Rules
As an educational model, El Puente Academy is confronting growing pains and financial uncertainties. Acosta is negotiating to renovate a Williamsburg building big enough to house all of El Puente under one roof - its health clinic, the arts center, the parents' action center, and a 300-student school.
The $500,000 Academy is funded by the city. But its expenses are also partially covered by El Puente's $2 million budget, which includes a new center opened four years ago in Brooklyn's Bushwick section, enabling it to offer more teaching assistance and more programs per student than the Board of Education supports. Ten of 26 AmeriCorps volunteers hired through El Puente work with the academy, assist the teachers. Hence, whether Congress continues funding AmeriCorps is critical to its continued growth as well as maintaining services by the 60-person youth center staff.
This year's budget reflects a $500,000 cut from the New York City Departments of Youth Services, the New York City Department of Employment, and the New York State Division for Youths - sources of funding that used to be El Puente's most secure, Acosta says. The cuts have been offset so far by cultivating a wider array of funding sources.
There is a successful partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for instance, through which El Puente and its academy's teens are participating in internships and mentor programs with artists, and have international musicians perform at the Williamsburg center.
El Puente's administrative structure has come under fire for being loose and inadequate, possibly affecting efforts to secure funding in the long run. "The passion of El Puente is its strength and its weakness," says a New York youth expert otherwise very supportive of the agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. El Puente has no annual report, it is information package can appear vague, and its grant proposals are sometimes late.
"Everyone is bending rules for El Puente, and that makes them vulnerable," the expert says. "What other program doesn't need an annual report? But people love El Puente."
Acosta and Lucerna agree they need a better administrative staff that includes supervisors and development officers, but they complain funding for this is hard to get. "We don't do glossy brochures because we don't want to spend the money on it," adds Acosta.
But the two vehemently defend El Puentes record as a professional organization, pointing out the organization has grown and thrived in its 13-year stint. "Somehow, there is this impression that an organization that is driven by passion is not necessarily about business. That's a misconception."
For the founders, observers say, perhaps the greatest challenge lies in whether they can sustain their vision - and whether New York City adapts permanently to the idea of a community-based youth agency involved with running a school. Lucerna and Acosta are not worried. "We are clear that we cannot be based on charismatic personalities but on principles to a vision," Lucema explains. "We nurture leadership and my work is to replace myself."
Acosta points to the transformation in students like Geimy Colon as reassurance for the future. "Geimy Colon was seen as a dropout," he says. "We say, she's a gifted leader, and every young person is a Geimy."
El Puente Academy
Frances Lucerna, Director
211 South 4th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
De Pommereau, Isabelle. "El Puente’s Full Circle: How a Youth Center Gave Birth to a School."Youth Today, May/June 1996, p. 24-27.
©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.