Shirley Edwards

The school that Bushwick built: the story of EBC High School for Public Service

Introduction

I’m Shirley Edwards, and I was Principal of the EBC High School for Public Service, Bushwick for ten of its formative years. 

Bushwick is an “inner city” community in Brooklyn, NY, and when I became principal – in 1993, the second year of the school – it was beset with all of the problems that typify poor, immigrant communities – especially those of color – in our major cities.  I was thrilled to have been appointed to a school which already stood out as an outgrowth of a community that had been organized to fight for institutions and programs that would satisfy some of their most fundamental needs. I felt that here I would truly have the freedom to make a difference. And I was not disappointed!

 

How it Came to Be

Since EBC High School grew out of a process that deeply involved the community it serves, it is important to understand a bit about the history that led to its founding and the balance of power that enabled it to develop in relative freedom from bureaucratic constraints.  

In New York in the 1960s and 70s, many politicians believed that some areas were hopeless, and could never be made to thrive. As a result, they implemented a policy called “planned shrinkage”, in which these regions were deprived of the funding and government regulation necessary to maintain public services, including schools, housing, and even fire fighting. In Brooklyn, that policy was applied to four neighborhoods in particular: Ocean-Hill Brownsville, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bushwick.  (These neighborhoods form a compact unit; one can travel from any one of them to any other without leaving the foursome for more than a few blocks.)

In Ocean-Hill Brownsville in the 1960s a few clergy collaborated in an effort to lead their community to improve its atrocious schools and do something about the lack of affordable housing. One of these was Father John Powis. Powis (whose church was near the boundary between Bushwick and both East New York and Bedford Stuyvesant), had tried to help others create a new community school board, with some temporary success, but soon came up against a brick wall put up by local politicians and the UFT (the teacher’s union). The latter launched a strike to prevent the new board from functioning – a strike that closed the schools city-wide for more than a month. In the end, the forces against community control prevailed, and the efforts to improve the schools had failed.

Father Powis realized that to have any hope of organizing their community effectively, they needed help from professional organizers. They approached several groups that offered such services, and settled on the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF.  IAF sent Mike Gecan, one of their top organizers, to begin to instruct them on how to proceed. Out of this came a group led by local clergy, which was given the name “East Brooklyn Churches”, or EBC. (Later a Jewish synagogue joined, and the group became “East Brooklyn Congregations”.)  

EBC formed as an affiliate of IAF and used their organizing techniques. A core tenet of the IAF/EBC philosophy is never to do for others what they could do for themselves.  So EBC organizers began to conduct interviews with rank-in-file community members. They wanted to find community people who had the passion and the ability to become local community organizers. And they wanted to know what the community felt to be the most egregious conditions in the community; things that cried out to be changed.  

Two issues stood out—the lack of affordable housing and the dysfunctional schools, which were passing students through to high school, only to have them fail the Regents exams and therefore not graduate.  They decided to work on both issues. 

Out of the housing efforts came whole blocks of homes that many local residents could afford to purchase; these came to be known as the Nehemiah Houses. New Nehemiah developments followed over the decades. 

The education issue proved a harder nut to crack. EBC spent considerable time trying to reform the existing high schools in Bushwick and East New York. When these efforts proved futile, they decided that what was needed was a pair of new public high schools, in Bushwick and East New York respectively, which would be operated as collaborative efforts between EBC and the NYC Board of Education. They wanted community input on all the key decisions about the character of the new schools, including a say in selecting a principal for each. 

A three-way struggle ensued, among EBC, the Board of Education, and the UFT.  A compromise was eventually reached, in which a new pair of schools would be launched, in East New York, occupying the first floor of a building of substantial size. They would be called EBC High School / East New York, and EBC High School / Bushwick. They would indeed be a collaboration between the EBC organization and the Board of Education. They would open in September 1992. 

And they did. The East New York school was on one side of the building and our Bushwick one occupied the other. (The gym was shared, which created a scheduling nightmare, but we managed.) 

That was our first school victory. It was made possible by the political clout that developed as our community became more and more organized. The powers that be – including those in the Board of Education, the union, and in elected office, took notice of EBC’s developing influence in the community, and took us seriously in proportion to that power. 

 

Where I Came In, and How EBC Continued to Help

In the second year of EBC High School, I was appointed as Project Director. (Having been a parishioner in one of the EBC churches, and having acquired a Master’s degree in School Administration, I was a known quantity to EBC with appropriate qualifications, and not too many applied for the ‘hapless’ task of shepherding a school in such a blighted community. So, I was selected.) 

Right from the beginning, the EBC organization and the churches that belonged to it were amazingly helpful to us. Forming a staff of dedicated and qualified people can be a daunting task. But in our case, many whom we hired had come to us, having heard about the new school through their churches. We were able to get many people perfectly suited to our distinctive needs.

Those needs stemmed from where students are were coming from – both figuratively and literally. The Bushwick community had one of the worst-functioning set of schools in the city, so most of our students came to us with 3rd- to 5th- grade skills in reading, writing and math. Moreover, most of our students were Latinx kids, for whom English was a second language, picked up on the streets more than at home. They were totally at sea when confronted with the academic language in which textbooks are written and exams given. Much of that transition should have been accomplished in their elementary and middle schools, but it wasn’t. Bushwick was in an educational “Dead Zone”, with devastating effects on the youth of the community.

So, we needed an exceptional group of teachers, and thanks to the spadework done by EBC, we were able to find them quickly. After looking at their resumes, I gave them initial interviews, looking for their reasons for wanting to join our staff, and trying to assess their love of kids, along with the “fiber” in their character. They needed staying power. Most of the time, I would also ask someone already hired – or two or three of them in a group – to interview the applicant and give me their impressions. If we all agreed that the person was a good prospect and would fit in well, he or she was hired. 

One consequence of their defective prior schooling is that our students had not been socialized to being students. They had not picked up the habits that are required for extensive learning. Attendance was spotty, and when they did come, many were there to socialize with their friends more than to focus in their classes. We had to deal with this head on.

The single most important way we tackled this problem is by instituting advisory classes which met daily. They were recognized as at least as important as any academic subject. Fortunately, I had had experience with advisories from long before, in a school where they had been called “Family Groups”.  They had been crucial in addressing attitude and other emotional problems back then and proved just as important at EBC. Nearly every teacher was given an advisory class. After the first year, we decided to select students for advisory by gender. It was felt that both boys and girls would feel freer to discuss sensitive issues – especially those involving sex and relationships – among classmates of their own gender. 

Advisories covered all of our students’ needs outside of the academic classrooms. Advisories took both field trips and college prep trips.

Above all, advisories were intended to form strong bonds among students, and between students and their advisory teacher. In this they succeeded admirably. Advisory students really did have one another’s backs and were deeply attached to their advisory teacher. 

Next to the advisories, three other “institutions” in our school were critically important. 

Our dean (who doubled as one of our two most qualified Spanish teachers) was critical to our success. She interviewed prospective students, letting them know most emphatically what was expected of them as students in this school, both academically and re. conduct, and asking them if they truly could shape up to the required level.  If the student seemed unsure about that, she would tell them that perhaps ours was not the school for them. Not all students who applied were accepted. We wanted those with a decent chance for success, which had to do much more with current attitude than with past performance. She also monitored students for dress code violations and decided on consequences for discipline violations of various kinds.

I hired a social worker, as a regular member of staff. When students felt truly overwhelmed by problems at home or elsewhere in their lives, they could visit him in his office, knowing that he would treat them sympathetically, let them ventilate where necessary, and give them helpful advice when possible. This was an essential component of our efforts to deal with the whole child, and it made a very great difference. 

For students with such chaotic educational backgrounds, it was essential to have someone on staff tasked with helping to keep students focused on moving forward academically. For this, we hired an exceptional guidance counselor. She made sure to let every student know what they needed to work on, talked to them about electives, and recommended the courses they should be scheduled for in the coming term.  All of this was done with an eye to maximize each student’s chance to be accepted by junior or 4-year colleges. 

In addition to all of this, I was especially anxious to find ways to expand our students’ mental horizons. As a single mom living in a relatively poor, “inner city” community myself, I knew the ghetto mentality that exists in the streets and tends to drag children’s behavior down to a base level. This reinforces all the stereotypes about children in such communities, so that many come to believe in themselves as ‘lesser”, without the capacity to succeed. I sought to counter this by giving them positive experiences beyond they few (e.g. sports) that the students thought within their grasp. Among these things were:

  • The first Latinx “Step” (dance) team (which won city-wide awards)
  • A chess club
  • A violin class
  • Visits to “Club Getaway”, where students engaged in fun activities from climbing trees to
    tugs-of-war.

Moreover, we did not make the mistake of concentrating solely and directly on “academics”. We recognized that our students would do much better if our “three-R” classes were interspersed with cultural ones, in which students could excel from the start, and which featured activities they already understood and loved.  So, we did not skimp on art and music classes, including spending our limited resources on equipment such as a kiln, photo darkroom equipment, and musical instruments. 

The result of this multi-layer approach was a high level of academic success. Over 90% of our students not only graduated from high school (in most cases the first in their family to do so), but got into college. Many of these succeeded in graduated from college and have stable, socially useful, and lucrative careers. Not a few chose to major in Education and have become public school teachers. At least three of these are now teaching in EBC/Bushwick itself. I am very proud of them all!

There was one more important “piece” to our educational effort. The official school title is “EBC High School for Public Service / Bushwick”. We took the “Public Service” aspect very seriously. It was a centerpiece of our moral compass. We believed that we all have a responsibility to help each other whenever help is needed. We taught this by scheduling regular public service outings, for everything from helping to keep our own street clean and tidy, to serving meals in churches to those in need, to helping out in elementary schools, with reading and other activities. 

We also taught a higher level of public service, fighting for what is right and just. The latter included a six-year struggle to have the Board of Education make good on their promise to give us a building of our own, and in Bushwick, instead of the one we shared with our sister school in East New York. This effort – helped materially by an organizer from EBC (the organization) – culminated one night when we packed a Board of Education meeting and demanded action. The case was made directly to the chancellor by two of our own students, and the result was a commitment on the record. Within about a year, we had our new (and still current) building. The thing that made this a true public service campaign, and not merely a self-serving effort for upgraded quarters, is that the senior class was fully involved. These students knew they would graduate before the building (which had to be rebuilt from the ground up) was habitable. They nonetheless participated with enthusiasm (despite grumbling from a few) because they wanted those that followed them to have the benefits of a true community school of their own. 

 

Replicating Success

EBC High School was the end product of a process that unfolded in a zig-zag path over more than two decades. The one common thread was an effort – first by a few, then many more – to improve conditions in some underserved and poorly served communities.  So, it is reasonable to ask: Is there anything useful that others can learn from this rather unusual sequence of events? Can other communities with dysfunctional schools either reform them or convince the powers that be to give them new schools which will educate their children effectively? 

I can only answer this in general terms – every community is different and has its own problems and opportunities. But here are a few thoughts:

 

Start with already-organized groups

In the end we benefited from a combination of unity (a product of the organizing) and the activities of some skilled and dogged leaders. Saul Alinsky, the founder of IAF, worked with churches (and sometimes unions) because they were the already-organized groups in the community – nearly every community – and they already were committed to doing good.  It was much easier for an existing body (or a coalition of them) to organize their community for a new purpose, than to try to create a brand new group. (In fact, a new organization might even be perceived as a threat by those already in existence.) 

To me that means that whoever wants community improvement should reach out to leaders of whatever positive institutions exist in their vicinity. Churches are an obvious possibility, but sympathetic politicians may be helpful as well. Plus, if you can find some “self-starters” in the community who share your passion for functional schools, they can be of inestimable help. Talk to your own neighbors, particularly those with children. You might invite them to a house meeting 

 

Have something to offer

Come up with a plan and do the research necessary to do make it plausible. If you can’t do this on their own, try to find someone sympathetic who can. People need to picture the plan in their mind’s eye. Once you have a possible pathway to success, you can paint them a picture in words, and fill it in. You don’t have to be eloquent. Cesar Chavez used simple language – nothing flowery at all – and he was one of the best organizers in American history. It was his detailed knowledge of the problems and how to address them, and his obvious sincerity and humility that convinced people to follow him.  

 

Keep plugging away – Don’t expect quick results

The leaders most responsible for getting us a high school were able to succeed because they were in it for the long haul. If you stay focused, try out new approaches, and keep your eyes open for possibilities that might not have been there before, new opportunities are likely to turn up at the most unexpected times in ways you could not have predicted. 

To me, these are the big three. But they are platitudes until you put them (or other ideas) into practice. Never give up! I wish you every success.

As founding principal of EBC High School for Public Service, Shirley Edwards created a ground-breaking multi-faceted program designed to foster academic excellence while instilling leadership qualities. Over 90% of the first graduating class, mostly the children of immigrants from Latin America, attended college. Several are now teachers themselves, a fact that gives Ms. Edwards particular satisfaction. A classroom teacher for two decades, Ms. Edwards was also chief architect of an adult education program for working people.

We also have a podcast episode with Shirley! We talked about EBC High School for Public Service and the creation of an intentional educational community of students, teachers, parents, and East Brooklyn Congregations. She came with a background as a teacher and a parent coordinator, and responded to parents’ desperation for a high school that would lead their children to success. Click here to listen to it.