BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — When Celeste Douglas-Wheeler arrived at M.S. 57, Ron Brown Academy in 2006, she faced the daunting task of turning around a failing school.
The middle school at 125 Stuyvesant Ave., near Lafayette Avenue, was placed on state’s “Schools Under Registration Review” list for those identified as low-performing.
“I was really a little nervous because at the time, the school had just a bad reputation and people just didn’t want to be here," Douglas-Wheeler, 40, said. "Students, teachers, and parents didn’t really trust us.”
She looked to the arts as a way of engaging her students in learning.
“There was this joy that was missing. I kept saying, 'Why do black and brown children have to see school as a place that’s joyless?'” she said.
Through a partnership with groups such as the Center for Arts Education and Carnegie Hall, the principal has succeeded in turning around the academy with countless school plays and performances, as well as art instruction to sixth through eighth graders three times a week.
While many schools are forced to cut their art programs, Douglas-Wheeler introduced a new focus in theater for students this year and will implement a specialization track in theater, visual and dance starting in April.
Monthly assessments help teachers keep their students on track, and an emphasis on social justice and a "restorative" approach to building relationships with kids fosters growth, she added.
Flash mobs are also a common sight at Ron Brown Academy, where the school dedicates days to impromptu performances in the hallways with students singing, acting and creating artwork.
Douglas-Wheeler recently sat down with DNAinfo New York to talk about the school’s transformation through the arts and social justice, as well as her philosophy for her students. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your mission for your school when you first arrived, and what are your goals for it now?
I had to make this school feel like a place where people wanted to be. It was really about making the kids fall in love with their school. We really celebrate the joy of learning; I think that had gotten lost in the past.
My mission really and truly is to prepare our kids to change the world and to make it a better place from where they came from. And I want them to be courageous. I want them to be kind and I tell them I want them to be crazy smart. I want them to be so intelligent and don’t feed into propaganda.
My thing has always been, how do I find the gift in every adult and every student in this building so that every single person succeeds? Not just students, but teachers. I have a fabulous team of teachers who are helping me to do this work.
Your school is known for its robust arts program. What impact have you seen on kids and parents?
I watch parents cry. I saw a parent watch her student sing an Italian opera and her say to me, “I didn’t know she could do that.”
When some of our kids get here they’re angry. They don’t know how to express themselves. They’re not doing well academically. What makes the difference is the relationships we build with kids. And the relationships say that we love you so much that we will not give up on an 11-year-old when they are exhibiting behaviors we don’t like.
Another thing I’m proud of is our teachers take students to the high school auditions, on the weekends, in case parents are busy. A lot of kids don’t go to the auditions because they don’t have anyone to make sure they can do it. They need that investment.
And you personally look at each high school application from your students. What other academic investments do you make?
Every single high school application. This is too important a decision. It starts now and I have to make sure I’m my students’ advocate. I want them to have diverse learning opportunities.
We offer Regents classes. I’m really proud of the humanities curriculum we’ve been able to do in the 8th grade, that is not only rigorous, but controversial. So now they’re studying Jacob Riis, and reading the New York Times’ “Invisible Child” series. In 7th grade, they’re studying Malala [Yousafzai].
I have this data wall I’m always looking at and we also do interim assessments every four to eight weeks, and based on those, kids are targeted. And I think because of that intense focus, we’re able to move kids. Now, every sixth-grader has been mandated to attend Saturday school.
What are your hopes for the school’s future?
First of all, I would do this job for free. I have never been so much in love with a job than I am with this job. I’m always thinking about where we are going. I think we’re doing a great job, but I’m not happy because we still can do better.
Not until I have 100 percent of my students performing at level threes and fours, at a high school that they love, in a home [where] they feel valued and safe. And they’re saying to me, “If I’m not going to go to college it’s because I’m going to be building my business or it's because I’m going to be traveling in Europe, figuring out what art discipline I’m going to study.” Until I see that or hear every kid tell me something like that, then my mission is not done.