(BAGF) in Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of only a handful of public high schools in New York City that offers classes in Mandarin Chinese.
It has partnerships with some of the top education agencies in the city, such as the National Academy Foundation; the students take field trips to Wall Street each semester; and this past year, the school's students placed second out 16 schools in the borough-wide stock market challenge.
But the school’s latest claim to fame is where it placed in this year’s Department of Education Learning Environment Survey (LES)—as one of the most dangerous in all of New York City.
"The kids run wild, and the teachers are scared," said a former administrator at the high school, in a New York Daily News article. “It’s like there are no rules here.”
The school was co-founded only two years ago by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. His office released a statement about the survey results, saying, "The leadership is working to ensure the school fulfills its mission—to make a career in finance a very real and exciting option for all of its students."
The school’s principal Kavita Gupta, who stepped in after the first principal was fired, says the characterization of her school as dangerous and unsafe is innacurate and unfair. She points out that even as the student body has doubled in the school's second year (receiving its new freshman class), superintendent suspensions have gone down 33 percent.
She also points out that the LES survey is based on the perception of staff, students and their parents and not on the actual facts.
The police have reported no evidence of gang activity within or outside of the perimeter of the school, she says. No weapons have ever been reported, and the school has never had a need to use a scanner.
She admits the school has had some problems with bullying, but she insists that it's no more than any other school with a similar population.
“The majority of the fights were by people who had chronic suspensions,” said Gupta. “It was the same people. But it was not pervasive.”
In the “Safety and Respect” section of the report where students answered the question, “I stay at home because I don’t feel safe at school,” students were asked to check “Never,” “Some of the Time,” Most of the Time,” or “All of the Time.”
Two percent of the students checked “All of the Time,” and 94 percent of the students chose “Never” or “Some of the Time,” meaning that only 2 percent of the students felt unsafe to the point where they did not want to come to school, while 94 percent of the students generally felt safe enough to come to school.
High school is where alcohol and illegal drug use are often a huge problem. However, nearly 50 percent of the students at BAGF checked "never" for how often they see drugs and alcohol, while another 30 percent checked only “Some of the Time.”
“The way it’s being presented, it’s like they’re saying this is the worst school in the city, and that’s just misconstrued,” said Kim Warren, who has worked as the community coordinator at BAGF since February. Before BAGF, Warren ran the counselor program at Brooklyn Technical High School for 16 years and now teaches an advisory class that focuses on the students’ psychosocial development.
She says she never got any complaints from kids who said they felt for their safety: “We’re living in an environment where kids have a lot of needs. I’ve never seen a generation of kids that need so much love and support and resources as this one. But by calling the school dangerous is giving these kids a bad rap.”
So if the students feel generally safe, and the principal reports no incidents of gang activity or weapons possession, wherein lies the problem? In other words, how did the school receive a 4.9 out of 10 in the safety category (7.2 is the citywide average for all high schools) on their Learning Environment Survey?
Gupta asserts, some possible reasons for "safety" concerns might have less to do with the kids and more to do with the staff culture—one that is new and still developing.
“I came into a situation where I was the new principal, and their expectations were not my expectations,” said Gupta, rather transparently. She added, most of the faculty were first- and second-year teachers she did not hire, and they were still developing the tools to handle a classroom.
Her assessment that the unsafe environment results were staff-driven also is reflected in the LES survey response rates:
While only 76 percent of students filled out the survey (compared to the 83 percent citywide average), even fewer parents—17 percent—filled out the survey (compared to the 52 percent citywide average). That’s only 22 parents out of 130.
However, 100 percent of the school's teachers (compared to a citywide average of 82 percent) filled out the survey results.
And by nearly every account throughout the survey where it didn't include direct teacher involvement, the teachers gave the school and its administration low scores. From academic expectations to communications, from engagement to safety, the school numbers suffered.
That the survey is so heavily skewed towards teachers against Gupta is no less signficant than it is peculiar. Is safety truly the issue?
Nevertheless, the school is taking steps to aggressively address any and all safety issues that may be present, whether they are deemed the perception or not, including professional development of staff around classroom management and student engagement; weekly town hall meetings with the students; and they have hired a new assistant principal of safety and security, a new dean, more guidance counselors, along with starting several other student-focused social support systems.
“My students want to learn and they need support. If they are engaged, they will soar,” Gupta said. “I’m hopeful, because we have a strong new team with many pedagogues experienced in their subject area. I’m excited about seeing how far these students can go now.”
Recently, the school won a $.5 million grant to build a fully functional trading room floor, which will include a live ticker, PODS where students will be working together and Bloomberg terminals with real-time financial information and news.
Gupta also arranged for art students to help turn the school’s formerly gray walls of the hallways, lunchroom and auditorium into brightly painted landscapes.
“We’re getting state-of-the-art language labs and science labs; we are on our way,” said Gupta smiling warmly. Her eyes disappear somewhere into the corner of her office as though she sees something no one else can. “It’s going to be a new year.”