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New York City
April 2002

The Miracle in Fort Greene
By Tom Kertes

The first thing you notice is the silence. This is one of the hallways of the Benjamin Banneker Academy, one of New York’s public high schools. The second thing you notice is the attention. It’s bright-eyed, avid, curious, evincing a genuine interest. These kids want to learn.

Roaming Benjamin Banneker–located in a one-time Drakes cake factory near Fort Greene’s notoriously tough projects–four simple words can’t help but run through your head.

It can be done.

This five-story schoolhouse with the small classes and the carpeted library is without metal detectors–just a single kindly receptionist lady at the door. The halls are so clean you could eat off the floor.

It can be done.

“Yes, it can,” said Daryl Rock, Benjamin Banneker’s Principal for the last four years. ”And it doesn’t take a miracle, either. But holding faithfully to a few strong principles helps.”

First, the admission: “Kids need good teaching.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? “But it’s not,” the dreadlocked young Principal said with a smile. “I’m sure you’re familiar with all the excuses used for kids not learning in schools: it’s the parents, it’s society, it’s rap music, it’s racism, it’s the negative impact of the media. The fact of the matter is that those outside influences apply equally to all kids, the ones that learn and the ones that do not learn. And this, of course, means that there is no reason why all kids can’t learn.”

“But that requires teachers who deeply believe that they can make a difference.”

In order to acquire such teachers Rock is willing to be different. “I go into colleges to find students interested in teaching,” he smiled. “I use word of mouth, I go on line. The teachers’ knowledge, while obviously important, is not the only thing – most of that can be acquired, anyway. I look for a rapport with the students. I look for people who can communicate with the kids on a level that is real to them, people who can get them interested.”

The second thing is to create a culture where people treat each other a certain way. ”I’m talking about a culture of peacefulness and mutual respect,” Rock said. ”It’s discipline and tough love, but it is love nevertheless. So many kids come from an environment–whether it’s at home or on the streets–where there is a lot of anger. In this school, we want them to experience just the opposite kind of environment.”

To accomplish this, Rock believes that role-models are very important. “Not just the teachers, but the older students as well,” he said. “We want students to see firsthand that studying hard and possessing a demanding work ethic leads to success.”

To engender that work ethic, the young Principal promotes creative teaching plans. “It’s not just the substance, it’s also the delivery,” he said. “Do everything you can to make the lessons interesting. Obviously, if you get the kids interested they’ll work that much harder.”

ýhe results have been dramatic. During Rock’s four years, Benjamin BannekerĐa school of 600 students that has a 99.9 percent African-American and Latino population–has jumped from a 60 to a 90 per cent passing grade on the State Regents exams in Physics, U.S. and Global History, and English–and from 40 to 75 percent in Math. “I’m proud to say, this is better than most high schools,” said Rock. “And it’s still going to get better. We are not nearly done.”

Obviously not: over 250 students participate in intense tutoring programs or take classes on Saturday. The school also provides advanced classes in English, biology, statistics, chemistry, and calculus for college credits.

Yet, these hardworking kids remain well-rounded as well, participating widely in intramural sports – a real rarity for a high school anywhere – clubs for dancing and drama, and all kinds of workshops. The 11th grade chess-team has emerged victorious in a recent citywide tournament and the Banneker Warriors also won the New York City Division B basketball championship last year. “What people must understand is that sports and after-school activities do not take way from education,” said Rock. “They add to it.”

Of course, resources remain a problem. The computers are aging, but Rock–with the help of a very involved Assemblyman Roger Green–has been creative in acquiring corporate donations as well.

So it can be done. If you don’t believe it, go down to the old cake factory in Fort Greene to check out how.#


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