Live and Learn

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 07, 1995 23 min read

New York

When Stanley Bridgeman was growing up in Harlem in the 1940’s, the most logical place to hang out after school was at school. You could play Ping-Pong or shoot pool, compete in sports or take arts and crafts, study acting or practice with the choir. You could also track down a teacher to help you with those math problems you couldn’t figure out in class or find an adult ear to hear you out on everything from girl problems to career aspirations.

During the day, dentists paid visits to check up on students’ teeth, and doctors looked for signs of ringworm and other common maladies.

School doors also stayed open on weekends and over the summer to offer recreational and tutorial programs, day camps and family outings, and trips to the community pool where children could learn how to swim.

“Plus, you could play in the streets and still be in compliance with your mother,” recalls Bridgeman, who is now 57 and serves as a special adviser to the commissioner of the New York City Department of Youth Services.

On a recent spring afternoon at Public School 194--the same elementary school that brings back such fond memories for Bridgeman--all activity ground to a halt as police officers circled the building. Their two-way radios blared as they combed the halls. Someone had called to report a shooting in the school. It turned out to be a false alarm.

The streets are a lot scarier now than when Bridgeman went to school here. But with the help of an ambitious program funded by the agency he works for, this community has once again begun to look to the school as a beacon of light and hope.

In 1991, New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins and Richard Murphy, his director of youth services, set out to help communities reclaim their schools. But rather than bog schools down with added responsibilities, their pilot project had a clear mission: Let community agencies use space in schools to coordinate social, educational, and recreational programs for children and their families.

The initiative, known as the Beacon Schools, grew out of the recommendations of a state commission on drug-abuse prevention. Drawing on turn-of-the-century settlement houses and the community schools of Bridgeman’s youth, the project sought to keep schools open seven days a week, 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, with an agenda to bestow benefits on children and adults of all ages. The intent was not just to offer services but to use schools as a vehicle to spur community development.

In its first year, the Beacon effort earmarked $5 million to help community agencies set up shop in 10 high schools across the five boroughs of New York City. Since then, the program has expanded to 37 schools across the city with an $18 million budget.

When you walk the corridors of these schools, it’s clear that Beacon staff members are doing more than putting once-empty rooms to productive use. They are also finding creative ways to tap into the talents of children and their parents while at the same time offering those families the guidance they need to tackle the day-to-day problems they face in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

But it’s also clear that making this help available has sparked subtle and overt battles over control, turf, and ideology. Some schools have been more receptive to their partner agencies than others. And when it’s come to furthering the goals of school reform, cooperation between the two camps has also varied widely. The program has sparked tensions over everything from how classroom space should be used to how children should be disciplined. Even under ideal circumstances, Beacon coordinators have learned that fitting in takes time.

Despite these difficulties, virtually everyone involved would like to see the benefits of the Beacon schools blanketed over a wider berth of beleaguered families and schools.

“Every school that is serious about education and children should have a Beacon,” says Dana Spencer, a psychotherapist who works at the Decatur-Clearpool School, a Beacon program in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Social programs have come and gone since Bridgeman attended P.S. 194. But for too many years in between, the school shut its doors at 3 P.M. and sent its children out into a neighborhood far different from the one Bridgeman knew.

Over the years, Bridgeman laments, the black businessmen and lawyers and sports and music celebrities who inspired earlier generations of children have long since moved out. “It’s difficult for a young boy,” he says. “He can see the drug dealer, but he can’t see the doctor.”

Joseph Stewart and Shawn Dove, two longtime community activists who never seem to be more than arm’s length from a child, are out to change that. Together, they co-direct P.S. 194’s Beacon program, dubbed the Countee Cullen Community Center after one of Harlem’s most prominent poets and educators. The Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a 25-year-old community nonprofit organization, manages the program, which was one of the first to receive Beacon funding.

Under Stewart and Dove’s stewardship, the school is once again alive with activity from sunup to well after sunset. Games, sports, music, and medical services are back on the agenda. But as a recent visit demonstrated, today’s offerings are also designed to equip students, parents, and citizens with the tools they need to transform their community.

A voter-registration desk sits in the school’s foyer, part of a campaign that has added some 2,000 Harlem residents to the voter rolls over the past three years. In an upstairs office, local residents get help settling civil disputes from a mediation team of volunteer lawyers. In the cafeteria, a youth council plans community-service projects and social events.

In classrooms, students learn everything from computers to tae kwon do. Some practice their musical instruments, while others rehearse for an upcoming theater production.

In the play area on the first floor, youngsters scramble to get across opposite sides of a rope in a game designed to foster negotiation skills. A former welfare mother who, with Beacon’s help, went back to college and now works in the program explains the rules.

Throughout the school day, therapists are on hand to counsel troubled children and child-welfare workers work to marshal resources for families at risk of splitting up or having a child put in foster care. Children living in homeless shelters receive special outreach services, and students who fall behind in school get extra help in tutorial sessions.

Later tonight, a group of students and parents will make their way to the school for African dancing and drumming. Others will show up simply for a safe place to socialize.

The school also plays host to seven Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week and taps federal and private aid to offer a variety of job-readiness programs and college tours. And every week, two to three dozen parents come together to plan activities and figure out how to involve more parents in school operations. “The school has become a place to go to resolve issues,” Stewart says, “rather than just collect somebody who got in trouble.”

Outside, the landscape has brightened, too. The youth council helped drum up local support to replace a cigarette billboard on the corner with a United Negro College Fund advertisement and later an anti-alcohol message. Students have also planted trees and flowers around the neighborhood.

But even more important, young people in the program have sown seeds to help stem local drug activity. Working with community organizers and a block association, they persuaded residents and merchants--including the drug dealers--to move their cars off the street by the school during the summer. Now, children play hopscotch, jump rope, congregate for fairs and festivals, or just cool off under a sprinkler on the school’s designated safe play area.

As word of the Beacon program’s work has spread, artists and celebrities who grew up on these streets have made their way back to offer messages of hope. Besides visits from various city officials, Beacon children have mingled with athletes like Bo Jackson and musicians like Gil Scott-Heron and Isaac Hayes. The actor Wesley Snipes spent a week here last year working with students as part of a community-service sentence for a driving violation. He even invited a student video-production team to visit the set of one of his movies.

But the best inspiration may come from the children themselves. As Beacon leaders have discovered, peers often make the best role models.

On the wall of one school office hangs the blueprint for a long-term Beacon dream: to open a student-run newsstand on the corner. A local architect has helped draw up the plans. And students have already made a pitch to the community board and started composing letters to the appropriate bureaucrats.

Teenagers have also spoken out on issues beyond their neighborhood and rallied at city hall to protest proposed cuts to youth services.

“This program has affected not only the school but the community tremendously,” sums up Catalina Smith, a 4th-grade teacher at P.S. 194. “Parents are getting services, and children look forward to coming on a daily basis.”

The boundaries that divide school and community, however, haven’t come down easily.

“When community-based organizations come into a school, there’s a romance and honeymoon period, and then there’s a divorce-court period,” Dove muses. “We have an attitude that here we are to save the day and clean up this mess. And school personnel have an attitude that everything is fine here, we don’t need you, and by the way, where are your educational credentials?”

“It took us 18 months to get on the same chapter,” he admits, “and two years to get on the same page.”

One reason it’s taken time for school-agency relations to gel at this and other Beacon sites is because the initial process for launching centers largely bypassed schools. In the first go-round, the youth-services department targeted high-risk, underserved communities and invited local organizations to submit proposals to serve as lead agencies in neighborhood schools. The revised process, developed for the last two rounds of Beacons, involved schools and districts in selecting sites and identifying school needs.

Besides creating a better climate for collaboration, “these changes have resulted in more comprehensive proposals that include activities and services during the school day” and offer more links to school reform, says a report by the Fund for the City of New York. The private foundation has provided technical help to the Beacon centers and is helping to document their progress under a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

At P.S. 194, having Beacon representatives sit on school-based-management committees and confer with other school support staff has helped build a collaborative spirit. Keeping classrooms spick-and-span and leaving such peace offerings as plastic wastebaskets, extra erasers, and electric pencil sharpeners have also gone a long way to assuage teachers’ concerns about letting outsiders use their space.

But it has been harder to bridge basic philosophical barriers. P.S. 194 Principal Russell Cunningham does believe that the program’s efforts to address children’s needs in the context of their family and social environments have benefited the whole community. But, he points out, that outlook doesn’t always mesh with the modus operandi of school faculty.

“The Beacon people believe in conferencing whenever there’s a problem, while teachers believe in action,” he says. “There are times when I deem it necessary to suspend a student, and they might not concur.”

If school people have found reasons to complain that the program coddles children, Beacon staffers have seen it as a moral duty to step in when the pendulum swings toward inappropriate punishment. For example, they helped parents call for the firing of an abusive security guard who handcuffed a former student to the school fence. They’ve also run workshops for teachers on how to report child abuse.

Inevitably, Beacon staff members get called in to handle classroom problems. “It is not unusual for teachers to bring children down with discipline problems and expect us to work our magic--which, believe it or not, does happen,” laughs Stewart.

But the bottom line for teachers is seeing results in students.

“We’ve seen improvements in the classroom,” Smith says, “even in terms of self-esteem.”

Although no formal evaluation has sized up the Beacon program’s success to date, there are signs of progress at P.S. 194. Attendance has improved. Police records show fewer felony arrests among teenagers in the neighborhood. And the school’s ranking on reading test scores has inched from 580th out of 620 elementary schools in New York City three years ago to 319th today.

Principal Cunningham grants the Beacon program its due, but he’s just as apt to credit the school’s academic programs and practices.

“How does one measure which program impacts children to such an extent that it’s obvious and, therefore, reflected in the upgrading of test scores?” he wonders. “I don’t think we have an instrument that separates the Beacon program from the day program from the community program from the home program.”

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has showcased the Beacon program as one of the city’s most effective youth initiatives. And even though he has targeted youth services for major cuts, city officials say the Beacon program will be spared and may even be expanded at some point.

But other city, state, and federal budget cuts could force sites to cut back the scope of their programs. And the youth-services department, which is expected to reopen the competition for Beacon slots later this year, will likely be monitoring programs more closely to find cost savings.

One source of federal funds that Beacon organizers had hoped to tap to expand their programs would no longer be available under a budget rescission bill that Congress has recently approved. The $25.9 million grant program, passed as part of the crime bill last year, was designed to support Beacon-type programs across the country and had drawn more than 700 applications. It may still survive, though, if President Clinton vetoes the rescission bill or if Congress reconsiders it.

The way New York City assesses fees for agencies to use school space, meanwhile, raises a different set of questions about the viability of programs like the Beacons. Under the school custodians’ contract, the youth-services department now pays some $50,000 a year in building fees for each program site. And the late evening, weekend, and holiday hours that Beacon schools were specifically designed to fill are the most expensive under the complicated billing formula, which also factors in the building size and number of rooms used. The more comprehensive the program is, the more cost-prohibitive it becomes.

“The discussion about how fees should be assessed for the way the Beacons use the schools needs to be a different kind of discussion,” argues Norm Fruchter, an education program adviser at the Aaron Diamond Foundation. “It raises larger issues about how school buildings should be used to serve the community that surrounds the school and how to think about a fee structure that makes that possible.”

It is clear, though, that the Beacons have scored points with city officials. “My first day on the job, the first thing I did was to visit a Beacon school,” says Al Curtis, who stepped in as commissioner of youth services last August.

One of the programs Curtis visited, the Red Hook Community Center at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn, has a compelling reason to reach out to its neighbors. Its former principal, Patrick Daly, was killed by stray gang bullets as he tried to track down a troubled child after school. Before he died, Daly worked closely with the community agency that developed the Beacon program at his school and was enthusiastic about its progress.

Today, the relationship between the school and its partner, Good Shepherd Services, continues to flourish. In the school’s entryway, a colorful mural of children planting flowers bears the caption, “Strength through collaboration.”

The faculty had the usual concerns about opening the building to outsiders, notes Kate Leonard, an assistant principal at P.S. 15. “But we spoke the same language of high expectations for children, respecting each other, and trying to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way.”

Rather than hire an ominous-looking security guard, for example, the program employs an unassuming, grandmotherly figure from the community who smiles and greets every visitor personally. Like some of the other Beacon schools, it also runs a health clinic.

“The neighborhood takes a great deal of pride in this building, Leonard says. “They see it as an oasis.”

“Teachers are incredibly relieved that kids have that support,” adds JoEllen Lynch, who was the first director of the Beacon here and now oversees several other community programs.

Beacon staff members have been helping the school adopt a reform model, promoted by Yale University child psychiatrist James P. Comer, that stresses collaboration and parent involvement. And teachers have sought their help on everything from starting a garden to kicking off a science project.

“Teachers have been really alienated and isolated, like the community,” says Wilma Merced, the director of preventive services for the Beacon program at P.S. 15. Developing relationships, she says, can begin as simply as “asking a teacher how her day was, even though you can’t do anything about it.”

If Eddie Calderon Melendez, the director of a Beacon program at Community School 214 in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, had a stamp he could use to leave his imprint, it would have literacy written all over it.

He has helped launch an “adopt a class” program that teams Beacon staff members with a teacher in a 2nd-grade classroom. He’s also putting together a curriculum and reading lists for after-school and summer activities that include studying medieval history and ancient Greece and visiting the Cloisters and the Museum of Modern Art.

“There’s a whole stream of literary consciousness in everything we do,” he says. But Melendez’s proudest accomplishment has been cutting the ribbon for a new school library, named the Hansberry Literature Center after the playwright who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun.” When he saw that the school didn’t have a library, he joined forces with the principal to find space, budget the necessary funds, and seek donations of books, files, and shelves from a variety of partners.

The Phipps Community Development Corporation runs the Beacon program here in a building that houses an elementary and a middle school.

Principal Montrose Spencer points out that the school was already geared toward community linkages as part of its other reform efforts. But, she adds, Melendez’s educational background has been a boon. Besides doing community outreach for youth organizations for the past 10 years, Melendez has a degree in early-childhood education and is working on his principal’s license. “With Eddie,” she says, “if we sit down and start planning something, ideas flow.”

Still, it’s taken time to build trust in the Beacon philosophy here at C.S. 214.

“I did voice my concerns a lot the first year,” recalls Spencer. “When I first told one of my colleagues we had been selected for a Beacon, she said, ‘Oh, you poor dear.’”

The Decatur-Clearpool School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, otherwise known as P.S. 35, had a mandate to blend social services and school reform before it became a Beacon site. The school got started when Clearpool, a residential summer program for needy children, paired with the Edwin Gould Foundation to explore how to use its lush campgrounds more productively year-round.

The two then teamed up with Community School District 16, which agreed to close a dysfunctional junior high and retool it into an exemplary K-8 school that would link with the camp facility to offer year-round programming. The school’s design is also based on the Comer model.

What sets this school apart from other Beacon sites is that the teaching and service staffs were hired with a common philosophy from the get-go and work to make sure activities are complementary and interdisciplinary.

But even with such a seamless design, the school has faced obstacles. Teachers say they can see the program’s positive impact on families, and interacting with therapists and other support staff helps them work more effectively with children and parents. But the lines of authority between Beacon and teaching personnel are often unclear, they say, and they’ve met resistance from some parents and administrators uncomfortable with nontraditional teaching approaches.

Changes in leadership have also rocked the boat. Since the school opened in 1992, it’s gotten a new superintendent and school board and seen a long series of principals and assistant principals come and go.

“Trying to maintain a nontraditional management framework and educational philosophy in the face of changing leadership is not easy,” says Tim Knowles, the program’s education director.

Still, steady improvements in achievement, attendance, and children’s attitudes suggest the program is on the right track.

“In terms of people, programs, and messages we’ve sent to kids, it’s anunusually exciting environment,” Knowles says. “There’s a lot to be improved when it comes to the actual mechanics of how nonprofit and school function together,” he reflects. “But you can’t learn unless you do it.”

Stan Bridgeman was 7 when he had his first birthday party. But it wasn’t at home. Instead, his teacher threw the party for him at school. His parents didn’t do much entertaining. Besides, he explains, they were reluctant to invite children in for fear they might take something.

The party is just one of many memories that evokes for Bridgeman all the formal and informal ways communities picked up where families left off when he was growing up in the 1940’s. Today, the school Bridgeman attended, Public School 194 in central Harlem, is trying to revive that spirit as one of the city’s Beacon schools.

“Teachers truly recognized that between 9 and 3 they were the parents and acted accordingly,” remembers the 57-year-old New Yorker, who is now a top aide at the city’s department of youth services.

His trip down memory lane also summons the teacher who brought in clothes for students and the one who carpeted the classroom and divided it into kitchen and living-room areas to create a home-like atmosphere. He recalls how daily recreation programs and social events at the school filled many an afternoon and evening hour. And how churches, parks department programs, and the Y.M.C.A. were a vital part of the mix, too.

The local police officer knew the neighborhood kids personally, he says. Still, children didn’t have to stray far from home to cross paths with such role models as 1950’s tennis great Althea Gibson or Harlem’s flamboyant politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

“Everything was in a one- or two-block area,” Bridgeman remembers. “Everyone was raising you. If there was a problem, someone contacted the minister or priest, and he came to your house.”

As an adult, Bridgeman continued to look for ways to stay involved with the life of his community--and the children growing up there. He still volunteers at a school board sponsored community center at a Harlem school on the edge of Central Park where he lived when he first got married. He enjoys shooting hoops and leading rap sessions with teenagers and old-timers at the center, but he notes that programs like it are too few and far between. The one where he volunteers has been clipped back from six or seven nights a week to two or three.

With the benefit of hindsight, Bridgeman offers his charges there this advice: “I always tell children, ‘If parents say you have it better than we did, tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.’”

Junior high can be a trying time for the hardiest of youngsters. But Cathy Jackson remembers her alma mater in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn as nothing short of a “war zone.”

“If you couldn’t stand up and protect yourself, you were done,” recalls Jackson, a 28-year-old who graduated from high school in 1984. “I personally used to carry an ice pick.”

Jackson’s 12-year-old daughter, Tabitha, who was once labeled a problem child, now thrives academically and socially at the same school. But today, the Decatur-Clearpool School, also known as Public School 35, has been transformed into a bustling community center and school-reform laboratory. What’s more, the school’s outreach programs have also paid off for Jackson, who found there the training and support she needed to land a job at a local bank.

Besides offering well-integrated academic and social programs,a signature of this Beacon program is the second campus it operates on the site of a former residential summer camp. Children spend upto 50 days a year on retreats that blend education and recreation, science projects and nature hikes, at the rustic 335-acre campground in Carmel, N.Y.

While the city campus has created a safe haven in the community, the campsite “opens different doors” for children who might otherwise never leave their block, says Jackson, who acts as a house parent on some of the camping trips. “They can come here, be children,and relax.”

Teachers and Beacon support staff members play multiple roles in activities during and after school and at both the city and campsite facilities, intentionally blurring the boundaries between teacher, tutor, counselor, and mentor. What makes the pieces fit, Jackson says, is “the way they handle kids and show how much they really care.”

That attitude--and a focus on learning by doing--made the difference for Jackson’s daughter. “She gets to show her talent without having to be pushed or threatened,” Jackson says. Apart from her studies, the active 7th grader has also participated in program-sponsored dance groups, roller skating, and movie outings.

“There is no place else like this in the neighborhood,” Jackson says. “If we’d have had these programs when I was going to school, a lot of my former classmates wouldn’t be out on the streets carrying on. Kids would have had something better to do than stand on the corner selling drugs and shoot each other.”

Kevin Hernandez takes his job as a role model seriously. Since he was 12, he’s been volunteering in an after-school program for younger children at a Beacon school in the East Tremont section of the Bronx. Now that he’s 14, he earns a paycheck for the privilege.

Although its core components are similar to other Beacons, this program puts a heavy emphasis on grooming young people to be mentors, project leaders, and summer-camp counselors. Some 70 percent of the 53 staff members are under age 23.

Kevin, who works from 3 to 6 P.M. five days a week, likes his job so much that he wants to be a youth counselor when he’s older. “If kids are in trouble, they can come to me, and I can help them out,” he says. “Even though it’s rough sometimes, I actually get to learn something.”

While helping children keep up with their homework and other activities, Kevin gets plenty of practice as both mentor and master negotiator. “There’s always some disagreement between two kids,” he says. “If one is about to get in a fight, he comes to me and tells me a kid is bothering him. And I break them up and tell them why it’s so wrong for them to fight. I’ve been doing it for quite a while, so I have a good idea what to do.”

Kevin started coming to the Beacon school when he was 10, after his mother picked up a flier about the program. Even though he went to a different neighborhood school, his mom was able to enroll him in the after-school Beacon program at Community School 214.

It wasn’t long before Beacon staff members took notice of Kevin’s leadership skills and recruited him to help out. But even with his added responsibilities, Kevin still finds time to take Beacon-sponsored karate and other summer classes and go camping with a Scout troop affiliated with the program.

Kevin remembers being bored and restless--and not always feeling safe in his neighborhood--before his mom picked up that flier. He also thinks that his friends who have found their way to C.S. 214 are less likely to find their way into trouble.

“When they come here, they always find something new,"he says, “instead of just being outside on the streets doing nothing.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1995 edition of Education Week as Live and Learn