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Bronx Charter School Soars to Success

PARKCHESTER — Just a few years ago, the Bronx Charter School for Excellence (BCSE) was suffering from low test scores and in danger of becoming a failing school. But in a remarkable turnaround, the K-8 Parkchester school has spent the last two years rebuilding its curriculum and is now ranked first in test results for all New York City charter schools.

Last month, BCSE won a prestigious National Blue Ribbon Schools Award from the U.S. Department of Education, one of the highest national honors. Just 269 schools across the country were selected for the award in 2012.

Much of BCSE's recent success has been credited to Charlene Reid, who took the helm as Head of School in 2007.

Originally from California, Reid, 37, got her start teaching in South Central Los Angeles during the teaching shortage of the mid-1990s. She came to the city to get a master's degree in politics and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, before teaching in Harlem and serving as principal at the PS/MS 306 in the Bronx.

Today, Reid oversees more than 400 students enrolled in BSCE's elementary and middle school.

Q: How did you decide to become an educator?

A: I was doing some career planning with one of my relatives my senior year of college, and he gave me some great advice. He said: 'Sit down and write down every job you’ve ever had, from high school up until now, and look and see if you see any trends or themes.' Every single job I'd ever had was working with kids. And he said, 'So, it sounds like you should be working with kids.'

Q: Was teaching always part of the plan?

A: I was a political science major on my way to law school. I felt like, something is not right about this law school track. This is something my family had been grooming me for for a long time — you’re going to be an attorney. I was a business major, and I did all kinds of things in high school, debate and civics, all kinds of things like, 'Yeah, I could be a lawyer.' But every summer, every time I had any time off, it was always after-school programs, tutoring kids, summer camps, being a camp counselor, all those kinds of jobs where you’re working and teaching. I call them the pre-teaching kind of jobs.

Q: What was your first real teaching job like?

A: My first teaching experience was in Watts, in South Central, Los Angeles. And after being there one year I decided to go back to school and get my master's in education. I said, 'This is it. I found it.' And I knew the first week — after the first week of being with my kids, I knew. A perfect match.

Q: You took over at Bronx Charter School for Excellence when the school was really struggling. What was that experience like?

A: When we first started off, we realized that there were just not a lot of systems in place, and so we just wanted to get the school at a very basic level, to kind of level the playing field. So, 'let's make sure we have the right curriculum; let's make sure we have an awesome professional development program.'

'How are we hiring staff? How are we retaining staff? How are we working with our community stakeholders?' Once we had a year or two of really fine tuning that, the model started to emerge.

Q: What do you credit for the school's successful turnaround, from nearly failing to one of the best in the nation?

A: We've done a lot of experimenting here, taking research and saying, 'Okay, research says that if you do these things, it's probably going to work, and let's try it out.' And then we tweak it based on our student population and our teachers.

We've created [a] culture of life-long learning. We're family oriented, being able to take the parents and really galvanize the parent body so that they can understand that they're advocates for their kids. That working together as a unit, we can get a lot of things done.

Q: What was it like finding out you'd won the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award?

A: We were all happy. We were excited, especially for the staff members who were here during that turnaround. It's different for those of us who came here in 2006. I had teachers crying.

Q: What's the best thing about your job here?

A: It's just knowing that the work I'm doing is going to help kids become successful in life. That’s what wakes me up in the morning — knowing that we’re doing some really awesome, selfless kind of work here. That the kids who are going through this school are getting something they wouldn’t be able to get in this borough. That in one of the most depressed counties in the United States, we actually have a Blue Ribbon school.

I feel like we're sending a message of inspiration for other leaders, for other teachers and families and students. That no matter what you look like, how much money you have or don’t have, you can really get a bunch of people together who really care and who are motivated, and you can make a change and make a difference in somebody’s life.