Claremont Village — Taft High School in the Bronx was among the first large high schools closed by Mayor Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s revamped Department of Education. Now, the building houses seven—yes, seven!—high schools, including one, the Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men, which is being phased out of existence, even as another, Claremont International, comes on line, one grade at a time.

As part of our year-long look at the people who will make up the mayor's final graduating class, and whose whole academic career has been shaped by the mayor's reforms, City Limits visited with seniors at two Taft schools—DreamYard Preparatory High School and the Bronx Collegiate Academy (BCA)—and discovered young people excited to begin their adult lives, if less than certain about what might unfold.

Long odds, big dreams

Keldwin Taveras, a tall, soft-spoken DreamYard senior with big, dark eyes and bigger ambitions, says he wants to study neuroscience; he’s applied to top-tier schools like Johns Hopkins and Cornell and, through the POSSE foundation (a group that develops academically talented urban youth and aims to place groups of students at highly ranked liberal arts colleges), he was accepted at USC, until his financial aid package came up short.

Keldwin is shy to critique his high school—but his desire for advanced academics is one thing he’d have considered more carefully, in hindsight.

“Personally, I feel I’m not academically challenged,” Keldwin says. “Bloomberg isn’t doing the best possible job. The school is so small that it can’t have extra classes—but students like us want the extra challenge. We want the extra push.” He catches his breath for a moment, then adds, “I would have loved to take Physics. I would have loved to have an AP in math.” But the Physics teacher left, he says, and hasn’t been replaced. (The school’s Regents science sequence ends with Chemistry; math ends with Trig.)

Tossing back a sweep of dark, glossy hair, Lydia Villa says she plans to major in dance and minor in business; she’s applied to Rutgers, Cornell and Alfred University. For Lydia, DreamYard Prep High School has been school, platform and personal springboard: Lydia’s worked hard to make connections, build relationships and network, she says, both in her school and with the arts nonprofit, the DreamYard foundation that anchored the school’s creation.

“I’ve always been very involved,” Lydia says. Tapped for a summer program called Summer Search, Lydia spent two weeks at Shenandoah University; trekked for 10 days in Maine with Outward Bound; and spend part of last summer in Idlewild, Calif., for dance camp.

As part of the signature Bloomberg initiative of small, themed high schools created to better serve high-need students—identified in the administration’s early years as a vital focus of system-wide school reform—DreamYard began as a project of a local arts nonprofit, the DreamYard Foundation.

Before becoming a DreamYard student, Lydia was involved with the Foundation. She took poetry classes that led, eventually, to a reading at the White House, and brought her to the attention of Caroline Kennedy, long affiliated with the organization. “Because of my connections, Caroline Kennedy wrote my college recommendation letter,” she says, with obvious pride.

Despite the summer enrichments and ongoing arts programs, though, Lydia feels her school lacks the resources other schools enjoy. “They tell us the realities of college, and how we need to be independently motivated, but we have not gotten the full preparedness [for college] that other schools have gotten,” like SAT test prep ahead of the big pre-college exam. Principal Alicia Wargo says that SAT prep will be mandatory for all DreamYard juniors this year—but it wasn’t for Lydia’s class.

Still, Lydia notes, “The attention is what motivates you and helps you to succeed.”

Although BCA and DreamYard Prep offer Advanced Placement classes together, they offer few opportunities for motivated students to pursue advanced academics. Right now, APs focus on English and Spanish, along with US history and government. Both principals say they hope to offer a math or science AP next year, but no firm plans have been set.

Schools evolved

BCA began as an Outward Bound high school, built on the principle that the confidence and skills kids gain through challenging outdoor experiences translates to the discipline and motivation to succeed in the classroom.

But the outdoorsy mission didn’t quite suit the kids, principal Darryl White tells City Limits—and the school had to make hard choices about its future.

“We asked so much of them,” White says, of the difficult balance between outdoor adventure and academic focus. “It’s tough to serve both gods.”

The motivation to change the school came from the staff, he said, “especially in a climate of accountability and [school] report-card grades. I didn’t want to roll the dice” and gamble with the students’ or the school’s future. Reincarnated as the Bronx Collegiate Academy, the school’s focus now is academics first and foremost.

“It’s really about test prep,” White says. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s what it is.” That and pushing kids to work harder. “We had to raise expectations. We had kids who coasted; now, they’re feeling pressure, they’re studying. We needed to put some barricades and heavier things in their way,” and motivate success by pushing back.

Ready or not

The school’s progress grades, which determine school survival, have since climbed: from a C to a B in 2009 and 2010, to a prized A in 2011. Both the principal and students feel the difference.

“It’s so much better,” Guillermaddie (Maddie) Aquino says. A senior now, she experienced both the Outward Bound experience, as a freshman, and the changeover to BCA. “The old principal, I don’t even think he knew our names,” Maddie says. “Mr. White, we all love him. We don’t disrespect him.”

Slender, lanky BCA senior Amadou Barry is all elbows and angles, folded into a chair in a crowded outer office. He came to the U.S. from Guinea in the seventh grade, speaking no English. By grade 8, he was in all-English classes at MS 301. He enrolled in a floundering charter school for 9th grade and transferred to Bronx Collegiate as a 10th-grader. The only one of his 16 siblings in the U.S., Amadou lives now with his cousins. His mother came with him when he moved to New York, but has since returned to Guinea.