Dominion of New York

Social Justice

January 3, 2013

Why Poor Black Children Excel at This Brooklyn Middle School

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Written by: Jessica Campbell

Inside a classroom at Ocean Hill Collegiate middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo by Jessica Campbell.


few years ago when Carlene Bass was looking for a middle school for her daughter, she stumbled upon Ocean Hill Collegiate Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

The student body of the new school, founded in 2010, was almost entirely black and poor. And so was the surrounding neighborhood. But the school was the sort you’d usually see in wealthy white neighborhoods — academically rigorous, orderly, safe, yet fun and welcoming of communication with parents. Bass applied for her daughter to attend Ocean Hill starting in 5th grade. Now she is in sixth grade. Having seen the school in action for the last year-and-a-half years, Bass is confident she made the right choice.

Her daughter is already learning what seventh or eighth graders in other schools might learn, Bass says. Teachers respond to her calls, emails, and texts immediately. And the violence she’s seen at other schools — she has “seen children literally get attacked and beaten in the hallways” — doesn’t exist.

“Here, everything is monitored,” Bass says. “It’s not chaos in the hall, it’s not chaos in the bathroom. The whole structure and organization is what pulled me to the school.”

Ocean Hill Collegiate is one of a small number of New York City public schools that is excelling at what naysayers say is impossible – achieving school-wide academic excellence among poor, black children. As a group, New York City’s majority black schools – which educate about 54 percent of the city’s black children — perform poorly on citywide measures of achievement. About half of them percent earned “C” or less on their 2011-2012 progress reports, while only 7 percent, or 27, earned the top score – quadruple-A. Ocean Hill Collegiate was one of them, earning an “A” on every measure of progress on this its first progress report. That’s an A for student progress, an A for student performance, an A for school environment, and an overall score of “A.”

Ninety-nine percent of Ocean Hill’s student body identified as black or African American, according to demographic data from the 2010 – 2011 school year. Eighty-nine percent of students received free or reduced lunch. And about a third of households in the surrounding neighborhood, Brooklyn’s community district 16, are headed by a single woman responsible for children under 18 years old, according to census data.

The secret to success, according to one of the school’s founders, director of operations Hanna Campbell, is the school’s “culture of both discipline and joy.” Joy is what balances out the lengthened school day, the strict structures, and the demanding curriculum.

One Tuesday this fall, a teacher whizzes down a hallway on a scooter, her pink and purple handlebar



The outdoor plaza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of OlivierJD.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Renato Ganoza

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