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Head of SoHo Charter School 'Champions' Marginalized Teens

 Head of School Barbara McKeon introduced the Champion model at Broome Street Academy.
Head of School Barbara McKeon introduced the Champion model at Broome Street Academy.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

HUDSON SQUARE — Broome Street Academy Head of School Barbara McKeon oversees a charter high school that caters to students from families who have “already have been marginalized in their own educational histories.”

The school reserves seats specifically for teens who have been involved in the foster care system or experienced homelessness. They are partnered with The Door, an organization in their building that caters to homeless and disadvantaged youth, offering support and health services free of charge.

But where some educators might see difficulties, McKeon sees young people in need of — and deserving of — a champion.

McKeon sometimes teases the students who are sent to her office for disciplinary infractions.

“They’re like, ‘Am I in trouble?’” she said in a small, nervous voice. “I always say, ‘You know, little girls get in trouble when they use perfume to wash the cat. That’s what you get in trouble for.' Young adults have problems. And you can choose to solve them, or create a new one.”

In instances many educators would choose to discipline a student, McKeon takes a "restorative practices" approach, which frames the resolution to a conflict as something that repairs a person's relationship to their community.

"We look at what is it that happened, [then ask] 'How do you become a member of the community again? How do you restore your reputation?" McKeon said. "My philosophy is you can’t restore something that doesn’t exist. So if you don’t have a relationship, how are you going to restore it?"

The Champion model pairs faculty and administrators with specific students. The Champion is that relationship.

"The way we made [restorative practices] meaningful to our community is to attach it to the Champion model. 'You need to restore the trust that the champion had in you because you did this.' So now these are very meaningful conversations."

Broome Street Academy reported the highest number of non-violent bullying incidents last year. And yet, just one month ago they had their charter renewed with high praise from the state agency that oversees charter schools.

Do you think you’re under more scrutiny as a high-profile charter school, with regard to the bullying numbers you report?

I don’t know about more scrutiny. From my personal and professional perspective, I think it’s an important topic. So at Broome Street, we take it very seriously and look at bullying probably in a much broader spectrum than bullying is typically perceived. We analyze our data all the time so that the data informs any programmatic aspects that we need to put in place.

Our kids are very aware that making fun of someone’s shoes can be bullying, so we report that. Or calling someone a name — even if it’s a joke — can be perceived as bullying and so we report that.

How did you come up with the approaches you take?

When I came on last year, we looked at the types of incidences and reports and commentaries that teachers were making or kids were making and made a conscious decision to do some research around it, some program around it. I had Harvard come in and do two studies with us, one called Social Perspective-Taking, and the other one called Making Caring Common, that helped our staff and students understand perspectives. Because sometimes what you say to someone is dependent on their perspective, how it’s received. And then [we] built two important models: The champion model and our restorative practices model.

What is the Champion model?

The Champion model is built primarily around relational trust. Every single staff member — the IT guy, the front desk person, myself — we are champions to a group of students. That number varies. One administrator may have two, I have eight, a dean may have six, the director of social services may have seven.

It’s not an advisory model. The premise is not that you build a relationship on Wednesday, third period, for 45 minutes. It’s an authentic relationship. The lexicon around here now is, “Have you spoken to your champion about that? What does your champion think?” Or kids who are feeling a little bit unsettled — “Can I go see my champion?”

How do the programs work?

Champions meet with their champs in very different ways. Mine come after school and check out with me. We talk about their grades, we talk about their situations outside of school, we talk about their relationships.

We also do mediations when there are disputes...They have written letters that they’ve had to read to the entire staff — what they did, why they did it, what they learned from it. We’ve had peer-to-peer mediation, staff-student mediation, caregiver meetings in which caregivers from both sides of the conflict or the bullying or whatever happened come together and discuss it — a whole host of things.

How are parents or guardians involved?

The champion is the direct link to the caregiver, to home. We do “failure prevention calls.” If there’s a student at risk of failing a class, the champion will call home. And that will not be the first time that the caregiver has heard from the champion.

One of the things we know about our families is many of them already have been marginalized in their own educational histories. So to make school friendlier place, a warmer place that represents something different than what they might have experienced, we are reducing the numbers of people that you have a direct line to. There’s a primary person.

How do your methods address bullying?

A lot of the research says a one-off bullying workshop doesn’t have outcomes that are sustainable. So we want to make sure that whatever we do is sustainable. And sustainable not just in our community. We’re creating the next generation. It needs to be sustainable in the world.

You look at the incident and the response — what happens in between and how do you feel about it. And what do you do about that? If you feel a certain type of way how are they going to feel? That has to be part of the dialogue if we want them to internalize this stuff.

Do you get involved with things that happen outside of school or after school hours, like cyberbullying?

As Head of School, you walk a fine line. We’re not investigators, so we’re not investigating your life. But we do talk to them about what goes on outside of here and what is the impact on their larger community. That leads to open communication about that stuff. Some of them have brought us screenshots and said, “What do I do?” And that’s awesome. That’s exactly what you want them to do, because that’s solutions-oriented.

Have you seen results from the methods you’re using?

Our Regents scores went up. A lot of things changed. It is my professional belief that when students trust you, they’re gonna take risks, and one of the things they’re taking risks at here now is their achievement and their belief in their achievement and their belief in themselves.

With bullying, the hardest thing to get past was sort of changing their lens that they are snitching. That’s really tough because, you know, our kids come from street-snitch culture, where the stakes are pretty high. But again, if you believe in your relationship, you’re going to take those risks. I think the Champion model has really heightened their ability to do that.

It’s even come to the point where even if they’re not being bullied but they see someone being bullied, they will go to their champion and say, “OK, I just want you to know…”