‘People from the projects, they don’t read.”
That’s how Kelly Connerton, a teacher at the new Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx, summed up her ninth-grade students’ disconnect with literacy.
“They don’t see their cultures represented in the Euro-centric literature they’ve been taught,” said Connerton, who teaches English at the academy, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the New York City Public Schools and the Anti-Defamation League.
“I started bringing in literature with themes like alienation and feeling ‘other’ in a country you were born into,” she said, adding that to coincide with Hispanic Awareness Month in September, she assigned novels and essays written by prominent Latino writers.
Connerton’s approach to teaching literature is just one way the academy is redressing the canon. At the school, serving just over 100 freshmen, instructing youngsters how to thwart prejudice is as important as teaching geometry or the Revolutionary War.
Principal Andrew Turay works out of a standard office cubicle, a far cry from the spacious offices of school heads in wealthier districts.
Turay, a Sierra Leone native who is working toward his doctorate in educational administration at Harvard, checks hall passes, mediates arguments and surveys classrooms in addition to his administrative functions.
No matter that his workspace is small, his hours long and his responsibilities copious, the veteran educator is proud that his idea for a school with an ADL-inspired curriculum has become a reality. The academy opened in September.
Turay conceived of a school dedicated to fighting hate about five years ago. He figured the ADL, founded in 1913 in response to anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews, was the ideal partner because of its experience in multicultural education.
“During the civil rights movement, [Jews and African Americans] were coming together to look at issues of race and discrimination,” said Turay, the former principal of Evander Childs, a 3,500-student high school in the Bronx. “Sometime after, the relationship fell apart. I don’t know if we can go back to that era, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build small bridges and extend them.”
Turay contacted New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that works with the private sector to create small and specialized New York City public schools. Since 1991, New Visions has opened more than 110 schools, including The School for the Physical City in Manhattan, which teaches city planning and civil engineering; the Bronx’s Mott Haven Village School, where students learn ecology and horticulture; and Brooklyn’s Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a school with a curriculum heavy in science, math and technology.
“Large schools, especially in underserved neighborhoods, don’t have a good track record,” said New Visions President Robert Hughes. “Smaller schools have higher attendance rates and are more likely to get students to graduate under new academically rigorous standards.”
In addition to per-student city funds received by all public schools, the academy received a four-year, $400,000 start-up grant from New Visions.
The thrust of ADL’s message is imparted during an hourlong daily class called “advisory.” Students are expected to stay with their advisory teacher and group of about 25 students through graduation.
The first year advisory concentrates on issues of identity through self-reflective journaling, personal portfolios, peer counseling and class discussions of social issues and school life. The sophomore year focuses on community identity, the junior year on national identity and the senior year on global identity. An annual class service project corresponds with the themes.
One teacher, Michelle Noonan, described advisory as “a subject devoted to breaking down prejudices.”
In a recent advisory session, Noonan drew on the blackboard something that resembled a sunburst. At each point emanating from the inner circle, she wrote as students dictated to her the qualities that make for a good peer adviser.
In five minutes the students had come up with a bevy of ideas that included “pass no judgment because of race, disability or physical appearances,” “being a good listener” and “carry self with respect.”
In Connerton’s advisory class, the students recently debated the pros and cons of inviting a student with behavioral problems to join their advisory group.
“He’s going to be a bad influence on us,” one student said.
“If we’re supposed to be leaders, there’s no way one kid, two kids or even more kids could change us,” countered another student.
Only after the class had drafted of a list of ground rules was the student in question welcomed into the class.
Teachers at the academy said the most common stereotypes harbored by students involve race — particularly against those who appear Middle Eastern — weight, physical appearance and homosexuality.
“At first when I looked at girls in my class I thought, ‘They’re stuck-up or showoffs because of what they wear,’ ” said Kathia Brooks, 15. “But then when I got to know them they were down to earth. I learned not to judge people by their appearance, but to get to know them before you pass judgment on the way they dress or carry themselves, the way they talk.”
For the student body, composed primarily of African Americans and Hispanics who live in the more rugged sections of the Bronx, anti-Semitism is largely off their radar screens, teachers said. But one student interviewed said her decision to repeat her freshman year at the Peace and Diversity Academy — last year she attended Grace H. Dodge public high school — collapsed her prejudices about Jews.
“Some people say they’re all are stingy, but I learned that just because you’re a Jew doesn’t mean you’re cheap,” she said. “You can’t put people down for the culture they are.”
The school plans to add a grade per year until the academy is a four-year high school. Now housed in a hallway of Herbert H. Lehman High School, the academy will likely have to find a larger venue in September.
About half the students signed up to attend the academy at a high school fair last year. The other half was placed there by the Board of Education.
The ADL’s A World of Difference Institute, its education arm, put on an intensive six-day training session last summer for academy teachers. In one exercise called “Here I Stand,” they were asked to line up and respond to statements like, “If you grew up in a place where you felt safe from harm and violence, take one step forward,” and “If you were raised in a place where the majority of the government leaders were not of your racial or ethnic group, take one step back.”
“[The exercise] dramatizes the difference in power and privilege and advantage that exists in individual groups in society, and highlights the cumulative impact,” said Tolanda Tolbert, the school’s director of diversity education and its ADL’s liaison.
Teachers said the training has practical applications in classrooms, composed of students with a range of levels of ability and English-language proficiency.
“A lot of students were picked on before they came here,” said Noonan, who also teaches history. “A lot of students come from foster care, broken families and non-English-speaking families. Some have learning disabilities.”
But Turay hopes the students’ exposure to anti-bias and anti-violence education will contrast starkly with the brutality and crime many witnessed in their young lives.
“Here,” he said, “we focus on peace rather than violence.”