It’s often said that a child’s zip code should not determine whether he or she has an opportunity to receive a high-quality education. Perhaps no school is putting this principle into action more than Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx. Located in the poorest district in the nation, this neighborhood school—with the support of strong partners—is giving all students equitable opportunities to be academically successful and pursue postsecondary education.
The school’s lead partner, The Children’s Aid Society (CAS), established the Student Success Center (SSC) and College Coaching Initiative in 2011 with the support of UBS, a financial services company. The SSC literally puts students at the center of the college preparation process by providing workshops, walking them through the financial aid process, taking them on tours of college campuses and linking them to internships to gain work experience. In its first year, 225 juniors and seniors were served and another 21 received more intensive case management services through the College Coaching Initiative.
Most students graduating from Fannie Lou are the first in their families to pursue college. That’s why former principal Nancy Mann felt it was critical to help families navigate the college application and financial aid process and to integrate college readiness activities throughout the curriculum and enrichment activities. The community school director works with partners, teachers and families to build mutual trust and to ensure that students have the resources they need to be successful, such as access to the nearby CAS health center where they can receive comprehensive health services and counseling.
Even before students enter the school, information on preparing for college is embedded into a summer bridge program for incoming 9th graders, and tours are held for prospective and new students in the fall so parents can learn about the school’s emphasis on higher education. Every student is required to begin building a portfolio, which at 9th and 10th grade includes a year-ahead plan, a career research project and a resume. Juniors and seniors add lists of colleges, personal statements and recommendation requests to ensure that they have the “college knowledge” they need to persist as deadlines approach. After they graduate, seniors also participate in a bridge program to receive ongoing support before they begin college.
Financial Aid Night and other workshops build parents’ awareness about the college preparation process. A full-time parent coordinator also heads up activities to welcome parents into the school community, such as a Thanksgiving potluck, technology and fitness classes and information on immigration. Parents also serve on the school’s leadership team and are involved in setting goals and determining how students’ needs are addressed.
In partnership with New York University, some students also participate in the EXCEL Academy, a four-week summer residency, followed by a two-week boot camp focused on preparing for college. Students have an opportunity to build leadership skills by applying to become peer college counselors. They are trained to deliver college access workshops, recruit other students for SSC activities, and contribute to the school’s college-going culture.
The school’s academic program stresses five habits of mind—including critically examining evidence, seeing the world through multiple viewpoints and imagining alternatives—as teachers work to prepare all students to develop intellectually and lead “productive, socially useful and personally satisfying lives.”
Students at Fannie Lou take pride in their school. Classrooms are orderly, student work is displayed on the walls and the floors are clean. The school’s appearance, as well as the fact that students are outperforming their peers in other New York City schools, is why the school has been called “an oasis in a bleak section of the South Bronx.”