A Fresh Start to School in the South Bronx

A first grade classroom at Storefront Academy in Mott Haven, South Bronx. Photo: Oliver Arnoldi

A first grade classroom at Storefront Academy in Mott Haven, South Bronx. Photo: Oliver Arnoldi

On Ethan Smith’s first day of kindergarten at Storefront Academy in Mott Haven, South Bronx, his mother, Dominique Smith, did not say goodbye to him at the front door. Holding hands, they walked inside for something different – a parent-pupil breakfast. At miniature tables littered with crayons and shiny stickers, they shared pancakes, fruit and juice with Ethan’s new classmates. 

This is how we want to start every day,” said Lisette Nieves, principal of Storefront, a new public charter school for kindergarten to first grade that opened this year.

Even on Storefront’s first day, the school’s effect was apparent on Smith: “It feels like the school actually wants us here,” she said. “It feels homey.”

A sense of home away from home is what Principal Nieves is trying to create for Ethan and the 99 other students starting at the school, which is located in a district where only 10 percent of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading, the lowest in New York State. Inviting parents into Storefront, rather than turning them away, is a key goal for Nieves.

In the Bronx, and across New York City, parent involvement in school is not happening. I want to build a community where parents are partners in the process,” Nieves said.

The holistic approach that Nieves promotes reflects the need for alternative education models in the South Bronx. The emphasis on breakfast is unsurprising – Storefront is located in the poorest Congressional District in the United States, with 38 percent of constituents living at or below the poverty line; 90 percent of the school’s intake receive free school meals.

The school’s mission, besides making sure the students are fed, is to reverse the district’s low literacy rates and as such has asked parents to read to and with their children. Storefront also encourages parents to push their children to keep a daily journal.

A passion for reading is the gateway to a good education in math and science,” Nieves said.

The reading area of a first grade classroom at Storefront Academy in Mott Haven, South Bronx. Photo: Oliver Arnoldi

The reading area of a first grade classroom at Storefront Academy in Mott Haven, South Bronx. Photo: Oliver Arnoldi

Parents appreciate the principal’s approach – and were quick to point out the rare opportunity that Storefront is offering in the Bronx.

I think a lot of schools aim to offer the comprehensive education that Storefront offers but with the amount of children they register it is difficult to maintain,” said Smith. Storefront has a class size of 25, below average in a district where they go up to 34.

Nereida Morales, who teaches kindergarten at Storefront, identified that the broad education the school offers also relies on a lack of financial pressure: “We live in a time where public school teachers feel very pressured about what and how to teach. It’s ultimately all about money and test scores. Here, we’re not going to make it about money.”

The sentiment is hopeful, but even on Storefront’s first day, challenges are evident. Five minutes before the start of school, staff still stood at the door waiting to register new students. Those final names never showed up.

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