This is a writing sample by “nycghostwriter,” AKA Barbara Finkelstein. It is “Field trip from Rio: Brazil educators visit a Bronx school,” written for a Teachers College/Columbia University publication. You can get professional ghostwriting services from a published non-fiction writer. Email me or fill out the short form on my contact page.
THIRTY-NINE BRAZILIAN EDUCATORS were just about to visit Rockefeller Center in late January when they asked their tour leader to drive them up to Teachers College. They had gotten a call from Dr. Brian Perkins, director of TC’s Urban Education Leadership Program and an informal liaison between TC and Rio de Janeiro’s Department of Education. The group was curious to see TC as well as a Bronx middle school where one of Dr. Perkins’ protégés had gained notoriety as a school reformer.
The impromptu visit north to 120th Street and east to 145th in the Bronx became the undisputed centerpiece of the group’s North American idyll — an all expenses paid vacation by the mayoralty of Rio de Janeiro to honor the city’s most effective teachers and principals. It was still the subject of animated debate on the flight home.
“We were amazed at the cooperation we saw between the pupils and teachers,” says André Luis da Silva, Jr., a teacher from Paquetá Island about ten miles northeast of Rio and the group’s ad hoc translator. “But the truth is, we were asking each other, ‘Is this school too good to be true?'”
Miracle on 145th Street
Mr. da Silva was referring to MS 233’s reputation as an inner city school that has made relatively rapid progress in raising math proficiency from 13 to 60 percent (2003 to 2010) and English proficiency from 10 to 30 percent over the same period. “Not something to brag about,” as The New York Times wrote in an April 2011 feature story about the so-called Laboratory School of Finance and Technology and Ramon Gonzalez, its principal and TC doctoral candidate. But, as the Times wrote, those numbers have made MS 233 “one of the top middle schools in the South Bronx” — and the tenth best middle school in the entire city.
MS 233 resonated with the Brazilian educators for a number of social and educational reasons. Many of them wrestle with the same fallout from crime, drug abuse and poverty that families in the MS 233 neighborhood also face. And many wonder if they can make a cultural match between some of 233’s most innovative programs — especially its financial literacy program — and their own schools.
The “school bucks” program at MS 233, which encourages sixth, seventh and eighth graders to save up for books, pens and computer peripherals, teaches math concepts and entrepreneurship. Students also have an option to invest their green bucks in a student-run bank that pays out ten percent interest. The Wall Street Journal found the program so ingenious it published a story that drew a straight line between the program and the five values the school seeks to reward: teamwork, compassion, relentlessness, scholarship and reflection.
“We were amazed by this program,” Mr. da Silva says. “In fact, it is similar to something I have been doing with my students.”
An educational meeting of the minds
Da Silva’s Paqueta Island is a popular tourist stopover where some of his students drive “ecological taxis” — bicycle-powered carriages — and charge visitors nominal fees for trips to the beach and other tourist spots. “They are making a little money now, but they are also learning some basic English words along the way,” Mr. da Silva says. “This ‘painless’ way of learning for my students and the students at MS 233 struck me and a lot of my fellow teachers as so powerful.”
With his aim of helping the children of Paqueta Island “invest” in the English language, Andre da Silva hits upon the same critical issue as Ramon Gonzalez, the principal at MS 233: They are taking steps to prepare their students to participate in a high-tech global economy.
Educators and economists around the world increasingly point to a “mobility gap” that threatens to limit the educational and vocational opportunities available to children in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, a phenomenon that may keep them poor from one generation to the next. When schools integrate academic subjects with “core” social values, they seek to give children a shot at thriving in a world where a college degree may be the best ticket to a life of self-sufficiency.
Changing the present-day reality
The teachers and principals in Rio and the Bronx implicitly buy into TC’s philosophy that public schools can be the coordination point for a range of educational, social and healthcare services. Some NYC public schools, including the Harlem Children’s Zone at PS 154 and TC’s own Community School, are exemplars of schools that combine academic rigor with so-called “wraparound” social services. Ramon Gonzalez, MS 233’s principal, is so committed to this model that he hopes one day to turn his Laboratory School of Finance and Technology into a community boarding school.
“Ten years ago, it was too dangerous to walk down the sidewalk on 145th Street,” says Dr. Perkins, who has authored several research studies about urban school climate. “Today you get a sense of order and hope the moment you set foot inside MS 233. That tells you that change really is possible, despite the obstacles along the way.”
Andre da Silva, Jr. from Brazil echoes that sentiment. “School exerts tremendous importance even in the roughest Rio neighborhoods,” he says. “People believe that only through education will we start to change the present reality of the streets.”