CORONA — When Ana Zambrano-Burakov became principal at High School for Arts & Business eight years ago, she announced her goal of near-perfect graduation rates and attendance for the students.
At the time it seemed impossible.
"When I said I want to reach 90 percent attendance, the attendance committee started laughing," she said. "I said, 'I don’t think it’s funny, we’re going to get 90 percent attendance.'"
Last year they hit 90 percent attendance and graduation rates — some of the highest in the city.
The school's hard work was recognized last month when Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña hosted a press conference there to boast about the city's overall graduation rates.
It was an honor for students who met and spoke with the mayor and Farina, Zambrano-Burakov said. Others live-streamed the press conference in their classrooms, and cheered as their school's art program, rigorous academics and graduation numbers were mentioned.
"Teachers said some kids even cried," the principal said.
Zambrano-Burakov is a graduate of Queens College and New York University. She lives in East Elmhurst with her husband and three sons, who all graduated from public schools.
When did you first decide to go into education?
My father wanted to be a teacher. He was born in Italy, and after World War II, he had to leave. He went from Italy to Argentina, from Argentina he came to the U.S. In his mind, it was important to have an education. And he always wished he had it. He was one of the brightest men I knew. He spoke Spanish, Italian, a little bit of Latin, a little bit of Greek, he knew “The Divine Comedy” by heart, knew the Bible inside out, in several languages. He was a scholar, 100 percent, although he didn’t have the opportunity to study. (Zambrano-Barakov's father, Vito Zambrano, passed away in November 2015.)
I came from Argentina at 9. At that time I lived in East Harlem, it was a very poor neighborhood, and I got a chance to see good teachers at work. Teachers that would do a lot for the families, including my parents, learning English in the school. That gave me a little bit of the foundation of what I wanted to do. And then I went to college, and I decided to go into teaching.
First I was a Spanish teacher for 10 years, then I was an assistant principal at Grover Cleveland High School. From there I saw the opening for HS of Arts and Business.
I knew Corona was a poor neighborhood like the one when I arrived [from] Argentina and I said, “It’s time for me to give back.”
What have you accomplished at the school that you’re most proud of?
The year I started here the graduation rate was 58 percent. I used to do the PTA meetings and I would have to do them in several languages, starting with Spanish, because only one parent in the whole group would speak English. We began doing Saturday English classes for parents. We started inviting lawyers to talk to parents, whether they can legalize their situation.
I’ve been here eight years. We’ve been increasing partnerships with people in the community that are actually helping. For example, I have Plaza Del Sol, they come and do sex education curriculum in the health classes and they talk to my PTA to do health fairs, so my parents, in case they need anything, they just have to walk a couple of blocks and they already know the personnel.
We have Center for Arts Education that gives internships for the students, we have New York Cares. O’Melveny & Meyers, they are a law firm that gives grants to schools, and we’re one of their main schools. They have been helping us for more than 10 years. They start interviewing in junior year and usually three students are recipients of awards. They have been helping us with parents of kids, that their situation does not lend them to go to college.
When you see the grad rate moving up there are certain things that had to happen first. You have to see where the students are, in terms of social and emotional needs. If they don’t go to college, why don’t they go to college? Their parents might be undocumented, they may be low-income. You have to address the attendance needs.
Principal Ana Zambrano-Burakov is flanked by her assistant principals. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)
The students are really connected here, is that a focus of the school?
When we interview teachers, we first interview them, then get them to do a demo lesson for students. We allow the students to tell us how they feel about the teachers. When we have implemented the suggestion of the students, we have seen the students do better. That voice is a very important voice to keep in the interview process.
It’s a different type of building. We have 816 kids, a medium-sized building, but we try to study the calendar and do events for the kids so they’re always interested in coming to school. What is it that interests students? We make school fun. We have movie night. I had a professor who used to say, “Students say how they feel with their feet.” If they like the school and they like the teachers, a kid’s going to come in. When a school has a lot of activities, then the kids are hanging out here.
What else is different at this school?
All students take Advanced Placement classes. We want you to be exposed to the curriculum. If you pass, fine, if you don’t you get to do rigorous curriculum so the next time you see it in college, you’ve seen it before. The kids that leave here have been exposed to rigorous work.
I’m proud of our accomplishments, and I want to move forward. The school is now attracting kids from other neighborhoods. And now it’s becoming even more challenging to come in, we’re getting more than 2,000 applicants for 200 seats. There is something magical happening here.
What are the biggest challenges at the school?
I have a high graduation rate but sometimes my kids don’t accept going into four-year colleges — because they can’t afford it. When people look at the data for my school, what they don’t understand is they got the college readiness and acceptance, but in actually paying for a four-year college, it’s expensive. Many of our students that are brilliant are going to a two-year college and then transferring to a four, saving all that money. That, to the public, may be misunderstood, but it’s the reality of the population I have.
It’s my goal to get as many kids into four-year college, and what I’m working on is getting companies to give scholarships so the kids who are deserving can get the help.
If you set the standards high, students will reach those standards. While you set those standards high, you need the support. You need the social and emotional, the individualized tutoring, the teacher who says "yes, you can do it," the right compliments, and even the right discipline.