Spread Love... It's the Brooklyn Way: A Day at Brooklyn Theatre Arts
The southeastern Brooklyn community of Canarsie is a not a common destination for many New Yorkers. It's a working-class neighborhood located 22-subway stops from Union Square at the end of the L train line. The main drag is lined with take-out restaurants, bodegas, laundromats and other basic necessity shops. Less than two miles away is South Shore High School complex, the home to Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, site of our Breakout trip on November 20th.
The campus houses seven schools and over 2500 students. About 400 of these students attend Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, a public school with an arts heavy curriculum. After passing through metal detectors at a security check-in, Principal David Ward greeted us with coffee and breakfast. David certainly doesn't look like any principal you've ever encountered. He's an energetic, youthful 36-year old with a welcoming presence and distinct Southern-drawl. He was wearing a "BTA" t-shirt bearing the slogan "Spread love... it's the Brooklyn way," khaki pants and colorful Nike sneakers -- not the normal attire of an administrator, but representative of the culture he is curating at the school. He was visibly excited to show us around.
"The name is a bit of a misnomer," he explained. Since he took over as principal four years ago, David has helped develop new student programs, including sports teams. He is proud of creating well-rounded students through an emphasis on learning through the arts. "I love seeing [football players] in the front row of show choir [class] ... it’s something they may otherwise never experience," David told our group around a large table in his office.
After an overview discussion, we headed into the hallways during a class change. As we wandered the mural-lined walls, David's positive presence was impossible to ignore. "Hey, Ward!" one passing student shouted out. "What up, Ward?" another said as she delivered a high-five. David explained he has an open door policy with students. The effect was obvious. "Sometimes students stop by just to see what I have in the fridge."
We dropped into a show choir class to take in a brief rehearsal and then took a peek at the student college advisory center. On the way back to the office, David pulled five students out of classrooms for a group discussion about the school. It was hard not to smile as we listened to their impassioned responses about their experience at the school and their aspirations. The students were proud of their accomplishment and confident in their futures. They were not shy to share their feelings on the healthy lunch options -- not great, but getting better -- and how David has increased the difficulty of the school curriculum, either. "Ward turnt it up!"
David continued our discussion on his goals and the challenges he faces as a principal in an arts-focused low-income high school. Engaging and inspiring students is a point of emphasis. BTA's graduation rate for 2015 was 70%, which is a full five points about the New York City average of 65%. However, it was apparent in our discussion that this principal is not satisfied with maintaining even an above average graduation rate. He knows he can do more.
One initiative David is considering to improve student engagement and retention is to create a "big brother, big sister" type program to provide peer mentors to younger students facing academic and social difficulties. He also wants to bring stronger role models such as alumni and other local leaders into the lives of students to help them understand the importance of good work ethic on the path to academic success and beyond.
As we wrapped an enlightening day at BTA, David rejoined his students in the hallway as classes changed once more. But before we left to top off our day at school with a pizza party at Roberta's, he made sure to let us know that his open door policy extends to the Breakout community, too.
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Alex Greer // Photos: Graham Cohen