Ted Swartz '68 is standing in front of a brightly lit classroom, giving his first graders a definition of the word "schism." "If you and your little brother have a big argument, and you aren't talking to each other for a few days, that's a schism," he explained. "Schism," the 17 kids repeat.
"Now, let's talk about the word 'buoy,'" said Swartz, pointing to the brightly colored word on a laminated board that runs the length of the classroom. Other words on the board include physics, conceit, gauge, quay, exaggerate, and pension. The words aren't your ordinary first-grade vocabulary. But the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning is not your ordinary school.
Swartz co-founded the school in September of 2003 along with four other teachers. The school was originally located in a church basement, but has since upgraded to a roomier temporary trailer facility behind a public middle school on Baychester Avenue in the North Bronx.
The school's slogan is "Giving All Children the Chance to Succeed," and it has a lottery-based admissions policy. The school currently offers three sections each of first and second grades, with plans to add a third grade for the 2005-06 school year, and a fourth grade, along with kindergarten, for the 2006-07 school year. Last spring there were 102 students, all of them African-American or Hispanic. For this fall, 162 students were enrolled.
New York's public schools often have to contend with budget issues, teacher shortages, disciplinary problems, and overcrowding. Located in one of the more disadvantaged areas of the city, it seems unlikely that the Bronx Charter School would be a successbut it is.
In its first year, the school moved from below the 30th national percentile in reading to the 74th percentile. Students' language and writing skills increased from the 48th percentile to the 75th percentilein eight months. "We're operating with the belief that all children are extremely intelligent; we just have to do the right things," Swartz said.
One of the emphases is on teachers adjusting to the level of the class. "If I ask the students a question, and someone doesn't understand, I'm always thinking, 'Okay, how can I phrase this question differently?'" Swartz explained. "And a lot of the time, it's just a matter of thatof putting something a different way."
That's not to say that it's an easy task. In addition to the difficulties inherent in teaching younger students, the majority of the kids at the Bronx Charter School come from single-parent homes. "They might be sad, angry, or hungry, or they might come from families where there has just never been very much hope," Swartz said. "But rather than let these things suck the energy out of these kids, we see a spark in them, and that's what we try to connect with."
When he was still a senior psychology major in the spring of 1968, Swartz never imagined that his career would lead him to this school. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," he admitted. "As I was graduating, it suddenly occurred to me that I would have to get a job." He taught for six years and then spent the next 23 years as principal, then assistant superintendent, and superintendent in the New Jersey public school system, and also as a consultant.
Leaving his administrator job and stepping back into the classroom was not a hard decision, he said. Though his current job is intense, the atmosphere of the school is warm and supportive. When the kids walked down the hallway at the end of the day, many of them stopped to give him hugs or show him artwork they'd completed.
"That, my friend," said Swartz, examining a brightly colored paper contraption, "is one excellent cube."
Mackenzie Parks '99