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All Students Can Succeed With Social and Emotional Support, Principal Says

By Gwynne Hogan | December 25, 2016 2:53pm
 Jorge Sandoval, the Principal of Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick, talks about how he's striving to provide social and emotional supports so that every teen can succeed.
Jorge Sandoval, the Principal of Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick, talks about how he's striving to provide social and emotional supports so that every teen can succeed.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

BUSHWICK — A new principal who grew up poor to an immigrant family from Ecuador — and was the first generation in his family to go to college — is now working to bring the same opportunities to his students at a local high school that's long struggled with flagging enrollment and poor attendance.

Jorge Sandoval, 40, took over as principal of the Academy of Urban Planning at 400 Irving Ave. on the Bushwick Educational Campus this fall, though he's worked for nearly a decade there, first as a substitute teacher, then a U.S. history teacher, then assistant principal, and now this fall as principal.

Two years ago, the school was designated a renewal school by the city, one of 86 low-performing schools to get extra funding and support. And their efforts have quickly paid off, statistics show.

Attendance was up from 70 percent two years ago to 86 percent, and the four-year graduation rate last year 70 percent last year, up from 56 percent in 2011.

While there's a constant fight to bring the most challenged students up to speed, Sandoval said, the new principal isn't shy about providing the more advanced students with stimulating opportunities, like pathways to internships with local organizations.

And starting this year, thanks to a partnership with Medgar Evers College, students can get college credits in history, English, Spanish, biology and U.S. history.

The school boasts a hydroponics lab that opened this fall and they're in the planning phases of getting a girls soccer team and working on a swim team for the recently refurbished Olympic-sized swimming pool they share with other schools on campus.

Sandoval sat down with DNAinfo and talked about some of the challenges and exciting new elements headed to the Academy of Urban Planning.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What have you done to get such a dramatic bump in attendance at the school?

The method is traditional work. There's making phone calls, meeting with students, giving them mentors, assigning them mentors, not just teachers but staff members. My secretaries serve as success mentors. We have our own attendance team, we do home visits: guidance counselors do home visits, attendance teachers go on home visits, teachers' assistants, no one is above anyone on the attendance team. Everyone has their own responsibilities to get those kids in. We call home twice a day in the morning and the afternoon. Any kid that's not there by the end of the day, whoever's not here gets a phone call. It's time consuming, but it works.

Has the changing neighborhood impacted the climate inside the school in any way?

One of the things that plagued us the most about recruitment is the old stereotypes about Bushwick. We know it's being gentrified, yes we get it, but those students aren't here right now. They're not old enough, and if their kids were going to our schools, then that's different, but right now we don't see that. So what do we do? How do we change people's mindset about Bushwick? We compete. So our next step is to compete — compete with other schools. So we're adding sports like swimming and girls soccer.

Has anything changed for about the school's teaching philosophy post-election? 

We still have work to do, we can't just sit here and be sad about how the hell did it happen? We all know how it happened. We discuss it as students bring it up, especially social studies. They try to synthesize it with the past, what happened when the Chinese immigrants were treated in such ways, we talk about quotas and the civil rights movement. I try to push the humanities classes to really face some of the issues that occur today.

What's the aspect of your school are you most proud of?

Our biggest asset is our social-emotional support. We have mental health clinicians brought in through our community school program. We have a Saturday academy, and every Saturday, kids come in for tutoring in math, science, ELA, whatever they need to get caught up. Not only get caught up, but to advance.

In the past people would say, "It's the kids — look at the kids we're getting." I was around as a teacher and I heard teachers complain, "Look at the kids we're getting — what do you expect from us?"

Now, that's not even in the vocabulary. We've created a culture where every student is a learner and we take any kid. I don't say no to them. I know we have the services, our biggest push to have that social and emotional support.