New York City’s ‘School Renewal Program’ and What It Means for Puerto Ricans

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On Monday November 3, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the ‘School Renewal Program,’ the City’s new strategy to address struggling schools. Through the City’s investment of $150 million for the program, 94 struggling schools will be transformed into 94 ‘community schools.’

Photo by the author

Photo by the author

Outline of the ‘School Renewal Program’

With none of the 94 schools located in the borough of Staten Island, the great majority are in the Bronx (43) and Brooklyn (27), with the remaining divided between Manhattan (12) and Queens (12). Currently, 23 of the schools have already begun transitioning into community schools. All 94 are expected to develop a school-specific ‘Renewal Plan’ by this coming Spring 2015, and begin implementing it at the start of the 2015-16 school year, at which time additional schools will be considered for inclusion in the program.

Some of the features of schools under the program will include:

  • one additional hour of classroom time per day;
  • enhanced after-school, weekend, and summer programming;
  • more professional development opportunities for school staff, including coaching for principals;
  • increased access to health and social services;
  • frequent visits and feedback from Master Teachers and DOE trained staff monitoring progress.

Adopting a “whole child, whole school, whole community” philosophy, community schools will address the mental and physical health needs of students, and have stronger family and community ties. Each of the 94 schools will partner with one or more community-based organizations, and will hire a full-time resource coordinator to organize services from optometrists, dentists, mentors, mental health professionals, and more.

Schools that are not responsive after three years and fail to meet the development standards set by the program will face leadership and faculty changes, and/or reorganization. Reorganization may include combining schools, dividing large schools into smaller academies, or closing and replacing schools.

What the Program Means to Puerto Ricans

The City’s new strategy to address struggling schools is significant to Puerto Ricans in a number of ways:

The School Renewal Program and Puerto Rican National Icons

Three schools set to transition into new ‘community schools’ are named after Puerto Rican national icons: P.S. 015 Roberto Clemente, J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodríguez de Tió, and Juan Morel Campos Secondary School. Each of these schools, located in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn respectively, were named after Puerto Ricans in order to develop a more relevant image that students of Spanish-speaking backgrounds can identify with, thereby strengthening ties with this population, which comprises the majority in each school.

The School Renewal Program would allow for these schools to survive and develop, thereby avoiding being closed, renamed, and reopened in a way indifferent to students. This is of great symbolic importance to Puerto Ricans as a social group that has played such a large role in the shaping of this city, and who are slowly being forced out due to the inability to keep up with the rising cost of living. To see schools named after our icons maintained and then go on to support the socio-economic advancement of young people would be significant in terms of our ability to then envision a better future for us within this city.

The School Renewal Program and Puerto Rican Students

The holistic, community driven approach with more extracurricular programming now being adopted by the City is one that research has proven effective in raising the academic performance of Puerto Rican students. Research shows that Puerto Rican students – and this is no doubt applicable to other social groups – perform better in school when they are engaged in and supported by extra-curricular and community-based activities. Such activities and programs, beyond those that are school-related, also include church/religious organizations, and organized sports, where youth often receive close mentoring.

Since Puerto Ricans tend to be overrepresented in negative health statistics, such as cancer, diabetes, alcohol consumption, and asthma, it is also of great benefit for Puerto Rican students in schools part of the renewal program that they will have easier access to health professionals. The stigma that exists in the Spanish-speaking community towards mental health professionals and speaking about mental health issues in general can also be addressed by this greater access since it would allow young people to develop a healthy impression of and relationship with such workers early on.

The School Renewal Program and Puerto Rican Diaspora History

In another respect, New York City’s School Renewal Program is an institutionalized version of a model pioneered in this city by the Puerto Rican Diaspora. In 1993, New York State’s first school founded by a community-based organization, El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, was created through a partnership between El Puente, founded eleven years earlier, and the NYC Department of Education. A Puerto Rican founded human rights organization, El Puente pioneered much of what the ‘community school’ approach now being promoted entails.

El Puente is also likely to benefit from the program due to one of its centers, the Beacon Leadership Center, being run in the same building as one of the 94 renewal schools, J.H.S. 50 John D. Wells. Since the Beacon Leadership Center serves middle school age children, and younger, El Puente is likely to be one of the CBO’s partnered with J.H.S. 50. In this sense, the City’s renewal program will play a role in supporting the continued history of El Puente, a pioneering and recognized example of what it hopes to achieve.

If the City makes it a point to consult Puerto Rican leaders in the field of education as a means of ensuring the success and vitality of its School Renewal Program, the role Puerto Ricans have played in this City’s formation would enter a new stage of significance. Even before El Puente, there was ASPIRA, which was largely responsible for laying the foundation for the bilingual education programs we now take for granted. Though such efforts by our people starting at the grassroots may not hold a prominent position in popular understandings of the development of New York City’s educational system, despite their overwhelming impact, on an institutional level, for the moment at least, it will be known that the City’s highest education official helping lead this program, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, is one of us.

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Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture.