It Takes the Community to Educate the Child at This Urban School Neighborhood Ties and a Focus on Social Activism Help Reclaim At- Risk Students

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It's science period, and a group of 11th graders is working up a head of steam debating New York City's effort to build an incinerator in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

"People act as if, if you put an incinerator right here, it won't get to them," Jennifer Suarez says. "But how are we going to expand the future and have another generation if pollutants are going to kill people?"

Class is in full swing at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a new public high school that weaves together basic education and everyday life as it plays out in an underserved, often violent corner of New York City. Created by two Latino activists determined to rebuild their neighborhood, it pledges to graduate "citizens committed to peace, justice, and human rights." "Our mission is to reclaim our community and our young people," says school founder and director Frances Lucerna. El Puente Academy is one of the most successful players in a small-school revolution sweeping New York and other big cities. Started in 1993 as a partnership between a community youth center and the New York City Board of Education, it is seen as a model in engaging students in areas where graduation rates typically hover around 20 percent. The concept is also a magnet for controversy, with critics charging that the curriculum focuses too heavily on social activism. Most observers agree, however, that El Puente Academy is doing something sorely lacking in many urban schools: hooking kids into learning by lowering barriers between their home culture and their school. Indeed, cities such as Chicago and Denver have followed New York's example since it implemented the program. "So many times kids feel that school is irrelevant to them, that it's not a place that is welcoming to them, so reconnecting them to their community has become an important part of the work to reform urban schools," says Ann Hallett of Cross City Campaigns for Big City Schools, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports school reform. "What's so wonderful about El Puente is that there isn't any break between the school and the community." El Puente Academy is located in a tough neighborhood occupied by crowded apartment buildings, empty factories, and a toxic-waste storage plant. "The right to breathe clean air is not something we can take for granted," says Luis Garden Acosta, who, along with Ms. Lucerna, founded El Puente, the youth center that spawned the academy. It is readily apparent upon entering the converted church the academy calls home that this is no typical inner-city school. The walls are colorful, decorated with murals of figures involved in the struggle for human rights, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Evangelina Rodriguez, the first Dominican woman to become a medical doctor. Academy teachers - or "facilitators" - say they receive as much from students as they teach them. "I'm not only a facilitator, I'm also the basketball coach, the guy they can trust, a friend they hang out with," says Hector Calderon. "Students look at El Puente and see facilitators that look like them: We have gone through what they have gone through, we are real people, and it inspires them." For the school's 110 students, learning takes place in and out of the building. Students, for example, organized an immunization drive for local children. For a math and science class, they turned vacant lots into community gardens and designed ads opposing pollution and cigarettes. They have petitioned City Hall for more trees for their neighborhood. For many students, such efforts spell their first real interest in education. "While I was doing this project, I was feeling a sense of connection to the community," says 11th-grader Geimy Colon. Ms. Colon failed most of her classes in a Manhattan school and had decided to drop out. "The teachers would tell me, 'You don't want to learn? Don't learn. …