The New Public

It’s August 2006, just days before Brooklyn Community Arts and Media high school (BCAM) will open its doors for the first time. Dr. James O’Brien, former D.J. and point guard turned first-time principal, and his faculty of eight, take to the streets in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to recruit students. Their enthusiasm is infectious and their ethos is enticing: to build strong personal relationships, meet kids where they are at and provide unconventional arts and media electives taught by local artists. From the first day of school, the buzz from the student body (a single class of 104 freshman) is that this is a dream come true. But as the months go by, conflicts arise when “the honeymoon is over.” Flash forward to September 2010, the first day of senior year. Principal O’Brien arrives at the morning staff meeting and marvels that his faculty has grown from 8 to 50. It will be their first year as a complete school with four grades and 450 students. That’s the good news! The bad news is, of the 104 students in their founding class, almost half have transferred or dropped out, leaving a senior class of 60 – and only 30 on track to graduate. What happened? What happened is both compelling and frustrating, and it’s what makes The New Public a critical document of the complexities, frustrations and personal dramas that put public education at the center of national debate. What makes a kid or a school succeed are a series of complicated, interconnected dynamics, including, a re-evaluation of how we define “success.” BCAM has made major adjustments – most notably, more disciplinary structure and no arts electives for seniors. But as O’Brien owns, “We spent more time thinking about empowering our community than board of Ed requirements…now it’s a race to the finish.” Casualties are unavoidable. Their story explores issues of class, race and culture in the contemporary battlefield of urban education. It’s a case study and a detailed map for the road ahead.