Students Turn a Bronx 'Crack House' Into Academic Haven for the Homeless

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But the Bronx Regional High School student takes pride in the fact that, through his sweat and skill, he may be helping to provide future students with more of a reason to stay in school.

Mr. Marrero and 17 fellow Bronx Regional students are busy transforming an abandoned apartment building and former "crack house" a block from their school into the home that some of their classmates do not have.

In a unique experiment, Bronx Regional not only hopes to offer housing for its students who would otherwise sleep on the subway or live in institutional group homes, but also to create a residential setting whose academic environment rivals that of the nation's finest college-preparatory schools.

Officials at the 350-student alternative school, which accepts students from all over New York City who have not found success at other schools, estimate that about 10 percent of the school's students are homeless or have been placed in a supervised group home by the courts or by parents who have given up on them.

Another 20 to 30 students are considered to be at risk for homelessness because of their unstable or abusive home situations, said Raymond Green, who supervises a dropout-prevention program at Bronx Regional run by a private nonprofit group.

And Mark Weiss, Bronx Regional's principal, believes that all these troubled youths deserve a chance at the boarding-school experience.

"The children of people who expect [their] children to run the country go to boarding school," observed Mr. Weiss. "If democracy means anyone can run this country, then there ought to be boarding schools for kids of all backgrounds."

While there are a handful of other dormitories across the nation for public-school students, they typically are schools sponsored by the state.

Only one other municipal public high school is known to run its own dormitory: 97-student Crane Union High School in Crane, Ore., has had a dormitory for its rural, 8,100-square-mile district since 1919. This year, 48 students who live as far as 145 miles away board during the week and go home on weekends, according to William Thew, the school's principal.

To develop its dormitory project, Bronx Regional three years ago sought out a local nonprofit community group, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, which had experience in developing housing projects.

Even before a building was found for the dorm, the school and Banana Kelly had joined forces to begin a job-training program to give Bronx Regional students experience as construction workers.

The school and Banana Kelly are now in the process of buying the abandoned apartment house from the city for $1, said Yolanda Kelley, director of youth empowerment at Banana Kelly.

Renovation of the building began slightly more than a year ago and is targeted for completion in the fall of 1992. The five-story brick building eventually will contain single rooms for 20 students--males and females on separate floors--as well as classrooms, a kitchen, living room, recreation room, library, conference rooms, and staff apartments.

Funding for the project is provided from a variety of sources, but primarily from the city and state. The labor costs--students will do most of the work and earn the minimum wage along with course credit--are paid under a contract with the city's employment department.

Meanwhile, the bulk of money for the renovation materials, just over $1 million, is on its way from a housing program for the homeless run by the state department of social services.

About half of the dorm's operating costs are expected to come from the city's human-resources administration, which provides funds for children who need housing, Mr. Weiss said. But the rest of the estimated $400,000-a-year operating budget will have to be raised elsewhere.

The dormitory project has thus far garnered considerable national media attention as well as praise from education leaders.

Shirley McBay, president of the Quality Education for Minorities Network in Washington, which has advocated the creation of year-round residential academies for minority students, hailed the Bronx plan.

"I do think it's a good idea," she said. "It provides an opportunity for students to be in a supportive environment."

Timothy J. Dyer, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, called the dormitory "very commendable."

"They're trying to break this God-awful cycle of poverty," he added.

The flood of publicity has been welcomed by the school, which is now gearing up for a fund-raising drive. Checks and pledges of donations have begun arriving by mail and by phone, Mr. Weiss said, including an offer of assistance from the local alumni group of the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy--an institution Mr. Weiss often cites as a model for his own school's experiment with boarders.

It was in 1988 that officials at Bronx Regional first considered tackling student homelessness themselves instead of merely referring students to shelters and other agencies, Mr. Weiss said.

The subject arose during discussions of a proposal to establish an academic institute that would focus on peace and social-justice issues by coordinating courses--such as those in Caribbean studies and the teachings of Malcolm X--already taught in the school, he said.

Some staff members "reared their heads," Mr. Weiss said, and suggested that the school address homelessness, a social issue that was an immediate concern in the school community.

A questionnaire distributed to students revealed that a significant number of students said they were "living where they did not want to be" and could use a dormitory, said Gaynor McCown, a Bronx Regional teacher and the liaison between the school and the Banana Kelly community group.

Ms. McCown said she knew of a handful of students who could use a dorm immediately, including a teenager who has lived with her toddler daughter in a homeless shelter since last September and has not attended school regularly.

Other students, she said, may sleep on the subway or bounce among the homes of relatives. Still others live in group homes or foster care.

"The need is there for sure," Ms. McCown said.

Students "put up with a lot of really terrible situations [at home] because they feel there is no place else for them to go," Mr. Green said.

Officials acknowledged that once the dorm is open, the number of applicants could easily outstrip the available spaces. In such a case, a waiting list similar to the one the school sometimes uses now for admissions could be instituted, Mr. Weiss said.

"We shouldn't not try to do the best that we can do just because it may have limitations," he said.

The dormitory project at Bronx Regional is not the school's first effort to provide more support services for students.

In 1984, the school decided to build an infant-and-toddler care center for the teenage parents among its students. Beginning with $10,000 in seed money from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., the school raised $300,000, Mr. Weiss said.

About 20 students now use the center, he said.

The goal of his staff is "to provide the best possible education ... whatever the needs of the kids are," Mr. Weiss said.

Also influencing the dormitory experiment is the success the school has had in sending about 15 students each year on city-funded scholarships to academic summer programs at the Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Mass., Mr. Weiss said.

The Bronx students flourish there, he said, adding that it is a "joy" when he visits the school and his students greet him by saying, "I can't talk to you now because I have to go study."

In addition to one day providing student housing for those in need, the dormitory project offers valuable work experience to the students now laboring on the building's renovation.

Each semester, 36 students--for a total of more than 140 so far--take part in the job-training program run by the school and Banana Kelly.

For nine weeks, half the students are on the construction site, and half are in the classroom taking a standard six-course load. Then the groups trade places.

About 7 of the current crop of 36 were Bronx Regional students before they joined the training program, Ms. McCown said. The rest came from other schools or were referred by friends or other organizations.

Some have been out of high school for as long as three years before joining the program, having earned few, if any, credits while they were there. Some have spent time in jail, Ms. McCown said.

When they finish the semester-long program, students may stay on at the school to work toward a diploma, as more than half did last semester, or be referred to jobs or to programs to prepare for taking the test to earn a General Educational Development certificate.

Even though they have spent only a few weeks on the renovation site, the current workers appear as comfortable as veterans as they move around the gutted building pounding nails and hefting new beams into place.

But Angelo Ferrante, the construction and training supervisor from Banana Kelly, said that it is a challenge to train each new group and that it can take a week just for the students to learn to walk on the narrow beams that may hang three or four stories above the sidewalk level.

However, he also said that the program is not in the business of "mass producing" tradesmen and tries to stress the importance of going to college.

When work began on the building in February 1990, the first student group was faced with clearing out 17 years' worth of garbage, including crack vials and human waste, that had accumulated while the building stood vacant, said Keith Roach, a Banana Kelly career counselor for the students on the dorm project.

Gesturing toward the front wall of the building where chinks of daylight appear between cinder blocks, Mr. Roach described how drug dealers would pass their goods out to the street from inside the building.

As they help transform the space, the students develop an intense loyalty to the project and to each other, Mr. Roach said, whether that means chasing down a thief suspected of snatching building materials or looking out for the safety of a classmate.

And the students are not shy in expressing their enthusiasm.

"It's great. It's fun," said Patty Medina, 18, who is from Manhattan and is the only female student now on the construction site.

A second-year student at Bronx Regional, Ms. Medina signed up for the training program because she did not enjoy school and because she "wanted something that would keep me in school."

Since she started, Ms. Medina has gained "a whole new view of how things really are and why I should stay in school." Now, she wants to get her diploma and go on to study architecture in college.

Mr. Marrero, 20, who wants a career in construction, said he plans to leave the school in June for a day job and ged preparation at night.

Nevertheless, the training experience has proved important, he said. "It gives us a sense we're doing something, accomplishing something--not out there running wild," Mr. Marrero said.

Both Mr. Marrero and Ms. Medina approved of the idea for a dormitory for homeless students.

"I think it's good," Ms. Medina said. "We're doing something for someone who doesn't have a place to go."

"I wish there were more of them all over the country," she added. ''Probably there'd be less dropouts."

Vol. 10, Issue 28, Page 10-11

Published in Print: April 3, 1991, as Students Turn a Bronx 'Crack House' Into Academic Haven
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