The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

The Essence of the Work

The Eagle Academy for Young Men is a network of five, single-sex public schools located in each borough of New York City, as well as one in Newark, New Jersey, that serves grades 6 – 12.   We are supported by the Eagle Academy Foundation, a non-profit 501c3, to form the backbone of a strong public-private partnership that has been highly effective in preparing young men as scholars, citizens and leaders.  The mission statement of the Eagle Academy for Young Men is to develop young men committed to the pursuit of academic excellence, strong character, and responsible leadership.  We take all comers, as is evidenced by the thirty-one percent of our student body having some form of special education designation.  We have consistently outperformed the New York City Department of Education’s achievement data by considerable margins for young men of color in terms of graduation rate, college persistence, and credit accumulation to name a few important metrics. 

From my perspective, the population we serve at Eagle is the most “at-risk” and underserved population in our school system.  Over the past eleven years, I have had the honor of serving as the leader of two all-male public schools in the Bronx, New York, with the last five years at Eagle.  When I reflect on the challenges, obstacles, and successes of achieving our mission, the level of identity development within our scholars is the strongest determining factor of their academic, social and emotional success.  Obviously, there are a plethora of factors that contribute to our scholar’s success and sense of self, such as, family dynamics, economic status, quality of teachers and school leader, exposure to rigorous curriculum, academic skill level, access to quality college exposure opportunities, parental support, literacy level, and the list goes on and on.   Several of these factors have plagued families in the communities that Eagle serves for generations. Our specific challenge at Eagle is to marry high academic expectations with engaging curriculum/pedagogy and effective social and emotional supports.

For the purpose of this essay, I define identity as the way people view themselves.   Our young men run the gamut regarding how they see themselves, with large numbers of students possessing both healthy and unhealthy identities.  A significant segment of our population comes from single-parent households, poor economic conditions, with many being the first in their families to go to college.  Several students have family members and/or close relatives that have some experience with the criminal justice system.  Traditionally, many for these stressors can cause young men to develop an oppositional identity, which contributes to attitudes and behaviors that counter mainstream beliefs about education, morality, self-esteem, and work ethic.  In Dr. Cornel West’s book, Race Matters, he discusses the challenges of addressing nihilism in black America. West defines nihilism as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”  The true heavy lift of our work is to create hope in students where there is none.  To establish meaning in the lives of students who do not see a viable future and do not value their lives—let alone someone that looks like them. 

What makes our mission more daunting is that our educational system has not created a metric or evaluation system that measures how schools instill hope in young men that were hopeless.  There is no credit or meaningful recognition for transforming students from angry, violent young men to a conscious, community oriented young men.  A major part of our challenge is to transform boys and young men with oppositional identities into healthy males, and to take young men with healthy identities and push them to embrace leadership.  In our eleven years of operation, we have witnessed numerous transformations due to a variety of strategies designed to aid in the healthy transition from boy to man.  Several educators and potential supporters of our work visit and ask us how we are able to facilitate change…here are some of the strategies we share with them.

Establishing Strong School Culture

So how do you get approximately 600 boys ranging from approximately 11 – 18 years of age to embrace habits and attitudes that will help them transition into healthy manhood? Without a doubt, establishing and maintaining strong school culture is the foundation of our work with our young men.  Healthy communities have strong traditions and rituals that help develop the values, morals, and ethics of an institution.  In our work at Eagle, it is important to establish strong school culture because a significant segment of our students come to us with negative experiences with school.  Culture and camaraderie are built through various activities such as Convocation which celebrates our seniors at the beginning of the their Senior year; Town Hall which is a daily gathering of our community to celebrate students and address important issues in our school and world; Field Day Events in which “Houses” compete against each other for coveted “House Points.”

Summer Bridge

An extremely important step in the process of acclimating our new students to our school is our Summer Bridge Program.  It was created to ensure that the transition from elementary to middle school, and middle school to high school is as successful as possible for each student.  Students not only participate in academic enrichment activities during three weeks of the summer, but they also engage in activities that develop their character and commitment to the school.  Students internalize various affirmations, poems, and rituals that honor cultural legacy.

House Model

Our school is organized around a House system.  All students and staff members (with the exception of administration) belong to one of four Houses.  The purpose of the Houses is to establish a system that holds students accountable for their individual and collective actions.  Students earn points and additional awards/privileges for themselves and their House by exhibiting healthy behavior (ie: punctuality, academic achievement, following specific policies, etc.).  Conversely, students can lose points for behavior that is not in alignment with our mission and school policy (ie: lateness, disrespectful behavior, etc.).  

Each House is named after an iconic African-American or Latino male, and has specific colors, and mottos.  Students learn about the attributes that made their House representative (Malcolm X, Roberto Clemente, Che Guevara, Barack Obama) an iconic world figure.  The House system gives our students a healthy peer group to represent and values to align themselves to.

Personalized Relationships with teachers and staff members

An essential component of our instructional program is for teachers to have personalized relationships with their students.  The importance of personalizing the relationship between teachers and students cannot be stressed enough.  Significant portions of our students arrive to Eagle without many positive experiences in school or meaningful adult relationships.  Many of our boys have yet to embrace their scholar identity or see themselves as leaders.  It is important for our teachers to get to know students so well, that they see attributes in them that students fail to see themselves.  It is through the strength of the teacher/student relationship that students begin to trust in what their teachers see in them.  Teachers develop personalized relationships with students by choosing concepts and content that celebrates students’ ethnic and contemporary cultures.  Classes that infuse technology, discuss issues of race and power, read literatures that focus on identity are all strategies that help teachers develop personalized relationships.  Teachers must be comfortable sharing personal aspects of their lives in order for students to connect and share their personal journeys.   Over the years, so many students have had the courage to share personal hardships in their lives that were impacting their ability to make healthy decisions.  Sharing their personal issues with staff members has been a first step for many in healing and getting the necessary help and support to foster their affirmative development.  

Additional strategies to increase student success include parent meetings that occur on Saturdays to maximize parent engagement, Advanced Placement classes and College Now courses that take place on college campuses, a dedicated College Counselor to support students through the intimidating college admissions process, a robust speaker series to expose students to healthy adults that have powerful testimonies of resilience and success.  At the Eagle Academy for Young Men, we are very intentional about constantly providing a clear counter narrative to the story of under-achievement and failure.  We constantly find ways to celebrate students for overcoming obstacles, displaying consistent levels of excellence, and transforming their lives.  We are only in our eleventh year, however we have countless testimonies and data that speak to our impact in shaping the lives of young men in profound ways.  As we look toward our future, our challenge remains to transform the lives of ALL of our young men.  We will continue to analyze our successes in order to enhance the strengths of our model and cultivate the genius within our young men.  

Jonathan Foy, Principal of The Eagle Academy for Young Men, Bronx, NY
About Jonathan Foy