CROWN HEIGHTS — Before Andrea Piper became a school administrator, the Brooklyn principal wanted to be a psychologist — specifically a child psychologist.
“I always felt an overwhelming draw to work with young people,” she said in her office at the ACORN Community High School at 561 Grand Ave. in Crown Heights, where she has served as principal since 2009.
Now, Piper — who early in her education turned to teaching, which she calls her “major passion" — makes time to teach a psychology class at ACORN, in between the duties of running a 230-student high school.
“I just love the interaction that I’m able to have with students. Not that I don’t come alive as an administrator, but I really come alive in the classroom,” she said.
Piper has been with ACORN since 1999 as a health and science teacher — the same year the school’s first graduating class earned their diplomas. The school, built inside a former T-shirt factory at the corner of Grand Avenue and Dean Street, was founded in 1996, conceived by a group of local parents affiliated with the now-defunct organizing group ACORN who “felt a need to have a neighborhood school,” she said.
The organization is no longer affiliated with the high school. But the group’s commitment to activism and social justice lives on in one of the school’s most successful extracurricular programs, Breaking Walls, a writing and theater workshop that culminates in an international trip in which students collaborate and perform with young people in other countries.
The school also has a particularly good debate team — the group has sent competitors to state and national championships for years — and, despite not having a gymnasium in the building, offers a full range of after-school sports through a partnership with the Boys and Girls High School campus in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
But above all, the focus at ACORN is “college readiness,” Piper said, particularly for students who may have a hard time envisioning a higher education.
“Some of them are in a place where they’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ And it’s always about getting them to a place where they say ‘I can’ instead of ‘I can’t,’” she said.
To that end, ACORN has partnerships with both Medgar Evers College and Long Island University where students can take college classes before or after their high school school day. The school also offers AP and dual-degree classes that allow students to earn college credit before they graduate.
And every year, just before the December deadline for college applications, the high school hosts a “College and Career Readiness” day where alumni come back to talk to the juniors about “the real college experience,” Piper said.
“At the end of that, we do a big parade down to the post office to mail their applications. We try to hype it up because it’s a big deal. A number of our students are first-generation college-goers,” she said.
A majority of the students at ACORN are also black and Caribbean young men (at last count, the ratio is about 60 percent boys and 40 percent girls, Piper said) who get extra support through the Department of Education's Expanded Success Initiative. That includes a special Male Youth Empowerment symposium every year that features workshops and special speakers who discuss everything from street etiquette to entrepreneurship with the school’s male population.
“We’ve met a lot of successes with enabling our young men to graduate and go through post-secondary institutions,” Piper said. “We understand the seriousness and the urgency of ensuring that our young men don’t drop through the cracks.”
Meeting students where they are is a big challenge for Piper, particularly when they come in as freshman underperforming academically or dealing with “social emotional” issues, such as unstable housing. To help in that arena, the school has a part-time social worker and psychologist on staff.
“I consider us a boutique school because we really tap into the needs of the students who are in our building. And our students have a myriad of needs,” she said.