Budding Hope in the Bronx

A generation ago, many children in New York City’s Bronx borough were languishing in underperforming schools and saddled with early-life challenges that too often carry into adulthood. So informed by a growing body of research and buoyed by the area’s can-do spirit, community leaders embarked upon an ambition plan to right this wrong.

Their meticulous work came to fruition two years ago with the New Settlement Community Campus, home to an elementary school, a combined middle and high school, a special education program and a community center. This oasis is a thriving testament to how a healthy living environment can pave the way for better educational outcomes.

The 172,000-square-foot campus houses health clinics run by a local hospital, outdoor play spaces, a pool, a dance studio (with a dance company in residence), a roof terrace and even a cooking classroom. Much of the campus stays open in the late afternoon and evenings for afterschool enrichment for the students, as does the community center, which anyone in the neighborhood can use.

New Settlement was built after years of planning by community leaders and partners including the Settlement Housing Fund, which creates and sustains high-quality, affordable housing. When community leaders first began reimagining the area more than two decades ago, the neighborhood had been devastated by fires and abandoned, said Jack Doyle, executive director of New Settlement Apartments.

From the get-go, planners made sure that parents in the neighborhood were involved — something they knew was critical to the project’s ultimate success. Doyle said he wanted to let the parents know that 83% of children in a K-5 neighborhood school couldn’t read, but most of the parents didn’t even understand the concept of “percent.”

“So we created a flyer with 83 kids holding signs that said ‘I can’t read at grade level’ and that got parents’ attention,” he said.

The New Settlement developers collaborated with private and government partners, including the New York City School Construction Authority. The school is in the early stages of collecting data on student performance, but Alexa Sewell, the Settlement Housing Fund’s CEO, said the value of locating schools near stable housing is already clear.

“Our families are in safe housing and paying under 30% of their income toward rent, so there’s a stability that contributes to stable and sound learning,” she said. Sewell also noted that the Fund receives regular requests from education and housing experts around the country who want to visit the school — something she hopes to see more of in the coming years.

Doyle said New Settlement’s successes showcase how dedicated, passionate leadership can transform these new schools.

“I think the problem in poor-performing schools is poor-performing adults who are failing the kids.”

Photo courtesy of David Sundberg / Esto