Clambering off school buses just after 7:30 a.m., some students were excited to walk into Booker T. Washington Academy for the first day of school Tuesday. Others dragged their feet and rubbed sleepy eyes.
Either way, they got a high-five — and in some cases a bit of help regulating their emotions.
A double line of suited male greeters clapped and rhythmically chanted as students passed through to the front door, organized by the Northeast Charter School Network to welcome them to their first real day of school.
A set of more permanent changes also greeted BTWA students Tuesday morning. One change: A new behavior management system that helps students manage their feelings, instead of punishing them for acting out right away. Another change: A beloved founder of the school has moved on to Smyrna, Georgia.
And a third change: A completely different building. The yellow buses drove their charges to 804 State St., formerly the temporary home of New Haven Academy, instead of the Wooster Square location where BTWA resided for its first two years of existence at 240 Greene St.
The key to juggling all the changes? “Systems and routines,” Principal John Taylor said as he met the school buses and made his morning rounds in the building.
New Year, New Space
After their morning cheerleading, students walked into a building that is almost double the size of the Greene Street property, from 24,000 to 45,000 square feet. BTWA outgrew the former building, which it had leased from Achievement First (AF) charter network — intending to stay four months and staying for two years.
This year, BTWA will include two third-grade classes for the first time, and a bigger kindergarten class, bumping its total enrollment from 180 to 242. Currently they take up two entire floors of the building and will branch out to the third floor next year.
They have a gym and cafeteria, which are separate from their auditorium. In the old building, they used one large space in the basement for all three functions.
Six new teachers, making up a third of the total teaching staff, have jumped on board, to replace Teach for America volunteers who finished their two-year service last spring and to head up the new third-grade classes.
And there’s a high-profile staff change at the top. Reverend Eldren Morisson, founder and visionary behind BTWA, is heading to Shaw Temple AME Zion Church in Smyrna, Georgia.
“I know he was torn,” Taylor said, of his partner in building the school. “All the way up to the moment he left, it ripped him up.”
He acknowledged the shift to accommodate the vacancy will be “tough because he was the visionary behind the school and the face of the school.” But Morrison will remain on the school board, as its first long-distance member. The board is still ironing out the terms of that involvement.
Morrison was also crucial to the charter school’s fundraising efforts. BTWA is putting money together to buy its own building in the next two to three years. But Taylor said he and other board members have been active fundraisers, building a network of community supporters who aren’t expected to budge, even after the school’s celebrity founder disappears.
“I don’t think it’ll be a huge difference. We’ll be fine,” Taylor said.
Desiree Fraser walked her 5-year-old kindergartner through the double line of high-fives to the back door of the school. She said she heard about BTWA through Reverend Morrison, who is a “close family friend.”
Fraser will be sad when Morrison heads South, but she doesn’t think his departure will affect the school negatively, she said. Though, she added, “it might be different.”
The Golden RULER
As the school grows in size, Principal Taylor said, he seeks to deepen students’ supports and tackle the school’s weak points. Moving into the building New Haven Academy recently vacated meant a fresh coat of paint and a reconfigured electrical system.
It’s a more difficult process to get parents accustomed to bringing kindergartners to school on time, or at all, every day. And it’s hard to ensure school staffers are addressing students’ underlying emotional issues when disciplining them in the classroom.
As Taylor walked around the school before 8 a.m., he saw students take the time they need to wake up as they peeled open cartons of milk with their breakfast. The goal is to have students in the school building by 7:40 a.m., done with breakfast in the next 20 minutes, and deep into reading by 8 a.m., Taylor said.
“We’re not there yet but we’ll get there,” he said.
Taylor pushed to partner with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, which helps schools build systems for emotional regulation in the classrooms. The process is described by a simple acronym: RULER. Students who act out are encouraged to recognize the feeling, understand the cause, label the feeling, express it appropriately, and eventually regulate it.
All teachers were extensively RULER-trained this summer. Last year, teachers used an electronic point system to track student classroom achievement each day. This year, they’re using the same system, but won’t take away points to punish students who act out. “Some kids tended to have a temper tantrum if points were taken away,” he said.
He peeked into a classroom where most students had circled up around the teacher, except for one, who had wiggled under a round table. “Hopefully, he’ll want to join the group,” Taylor said.
Several minutes later, closer to the official start of class, he passed by and the student hadn’t joined his peers.
Sternly but kindly, Taylor pulled him out of the room and asked him to stand by the water fountain, to await the dean of students. The student was upset because he had been left back a grade and was feeling defeated as his friends started a new year without him.
“We know our scholars,” Taylor said. “We’ll work with him.”
BTWA is still growing, a grade each year. The charter allows them to keep going through eighth grade. In two years, the end of the lease at the State Street building, they will be too big to stay put. Taylor hopes they will have raised enough funds to buy and renovate a new building.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to make it,” Taylor said with a laugh. “But we’re still standing.”
High-Fives All Around
Jose Alfaro was thinking about BTWA’s new building when he asked his co-workers at the Northeast Charter School Network and other friends to join him in welcoming students on their first day. “We wanted to celebrate them,” he said. Students might be motivated “seeing young people in their community rooting for them.”
The group of men that turned out was seven-people small but energetic. They clapped in beat and sang, “Welcome back to school!” Some of the students met them with hands timidly outstretched. Others swung into the high-fives with all their might. A couple swerved and went around the men.
Carlos Chaparro, a banker at Wells Fargo, joined independent of a charter organization. He is an older college student, matriculating at Albertus Magnus last year at the age of 24. “I realized later in life that education was important,” he said.
He wants students to come to that realization earlier — and for community members to hold large organizations like Wells Fargo accountable for getting involved in more events.
Byron McCauley, director of communications for the charter advocacy group ConnCAN, said it’s important for students to see positive representations of black men, to “make them feel really proud of where they’re going.”
The high-fives communicate a lot, McCauley said. “Hey, you matter. You’re going to do great this year. We value you.”