Brownsville Academy High School: A Case for the Holistic Approach to Education

Jill Nawrocki


This paper makes a case for a more holistic approach to education using Brownsville Academy High School as a model for success. This public institution in Brooklyn, New York takes a school as social service approach, offering its scholars a wide variety of social, emotional and psychological services to support students in their learning environment. This paper identifies the original purpose of the American education system, and explores the nation¡¯s objective to provide fair, equal and effective schooling to all youth. It outlines the most common obstacles that prevent marginalized populations from graduating. Finally, it explains how the Brownsville Academy model, which employs a holistic approach to schooling by addressing the social, emotional and educational needs of scholars, can ultimately lead to greater student success.


Public education has played an essential role in the development of democracy in the United States. Since its inception in the late 19th century, schools have been utilized as institutions of ¡°Americanization¡± for recent immigrants, a tool for the creation of an informed body of voters, and a place where social values can be disseminated to the masses. In addition to this more national agenda, public schools also seek to prepare scholars for their futures, for college, and ultimately, for the working world (Kaestle, 1983). Despite this noble intention, there is an enduring struggle within the American public education system to provide fair, equal, and effective schooling to all students, regardless of race, class, or gender.

According to Jonson-Reid (2009), ¡°educational achievement is…strongly related to economic well-being¡± and ¡°poverty at the family and school level is strongly linked to poor educational opportunities and outcomes.” Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans¡ª particularly those who come from impoverished areas¡ªtend to fall short of other students in testing and performance. But they are not alone in the struggle. Recently, a perceived decline in performance by teachers, students, and schools has ignited passionate debate over a need for public education reform. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, ¡°one-quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time. Almost one million students leave…school for the streets each year…Other [countries] have passed [America] by, and we¡¯re paying a huge price¡± (Friedman, 2010). For this reason, much of the nation¡ªregardless of political party, class, race, or gender¡ªagrees that something must be done to improve the current educational environment. One alternative high school on the border of East New York, Brooklyn is attempting to do just that.

This paper will make a case for the holistic approach to student learning using Brownsville Academy as a model. This school focuses not only on the scholastic needs of learners, but also on the biopsychosocial factors that can impact student success. This model will be examined using cultural capital, intersectionality, and empowerment theories to show successful learning requires more than just clean classrooms and high quality teachers.

Brownsville Academy High School: A Case Study

Brownsville Academy High School is an alternative learning institution in Brooklyn for over-aged, under-credited students. Founded in 2005, this diploma-plus school was the first of its kind in the city and the state. In addition to passing regents exams and accumulating the standard forty-four credits necessary for graduation, students who attend this public high school are required to complete a community service project, an internship, at least one college course and a comprehensive portfolio of essays, papers, and projects in order to receive their diplomas. This extra step asks students to go beyond the basics to achieve real, hardcopy evidence of achievement and success.

The majority of Brownsville¡¯s 250 learners are black and Latino students from under-served communities who failed to thrive in traditional public settings due to drug use, family crisis, homelessness, abuse, incarceration, and a variety of other social welfare issues. The average student enters this high school at the age of nineteen with roughly ten credits and has until the age of twenty-one to earn a diploma. The school¡¯s population is ninety percent black, eight percent Hispanic and two percent white¡ª statistics that give some credence to Ladson- Billings¡¯ (1995) assertion that ¡°students of color are more segregated than ever before¡± (p. 55). Youth here are able to thrive for several reasons. ¡°The hidden curriculum of whiteness [that saturates] every day school life¡± (Leonardo, 2004, p. 144) is nearly obsolete at Brownsville. The 250 students, almost exclusively black, look and sound a lot like the teachers and administrators at Brownsville. There is no sense of ¡°otherness¡± and the standard ¡°tracking practices in schools [that] limit educational mobility…[for] black and Latino students¡± (Leonardo, 2004, p. 148) are less apparent inside the halls of Brownsville. While some might argue that this ¡°segregated education for students of color creates substandard schools…and inferior education¡± (Leonardo, 2004, p. 146), Brownsville¡¯s principals, teachers, administrative staff and social service support make serious efforts to ensure this is not the case. Traditional public education settings focus almost exclusively on the academic success of their students. Approximately 88 percent of U.S. youth attend public schools at some point in their development, and these students require a wide range of services beyond the scope of the classroom (Jonson-Reid, 2009). For this reason, Brownsville Academy High School makes a concerted effort to address not just the academic needs of its scholars, but their biopsychosocial needs as well. Many of these adoles- cents arrived at this alternative school because attendance issues, foster care, abuse, incarceration, childcare issues, violence, or drugs made attending a more traditional school nearly impossible. Administrators do not deny their students this past, and instead offer a wealth of supportive services to acknowledge these challenges, and empower students to face and overcome them.

In addition to more than a dozen qualified teachers, a social worker, two guidance counselors, a special education teacher, a career and college counselor, a Learn-to-Work advisor, a parent coordinator, an intervention specialist, a mediation team, and a substance abuse coun- selor are all employed by the school. Daily attendance calls are made to scholars who fail to attend class and home visits are done on a regular basis. Students are required to participate in at least one extra-curricular activity, and their achievements are monitored and tracked by a number of administration teams within the school. Clarence Thomas one argued:

The failure to provide education to poor urban children perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty, dependence, criminality and alienation that continues for the remainder of their lives. If society cannot end racial discrimination, at least it can arm minorities with the education to defend themselves from some of discrimination¡¯s effects (as cited in Peterson, 2003, p. 7).

Brownsville Academy aims to do exactly that, by offering tools for academic success, as well as services that provide holistic support for its unique student population.

Cultural Capital

A vast majority of Brownsville Academy¡¯s students come from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds. Nearly 190 Brownsville Academy scholars receive free lunch and 200 student families are on some kind of public assistance (Office of Accountability, 2009). They come from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, and their financial disadvantages are often obvious. In addition to fiscal challenges, a number of these students face social disadvantages as well. Many are first- generation immigrants, while others have lived in more than a dozen foster homes. There are students who spend long weekends visiting parents in prison, and an even greater number who float between friends¡¯ couches and local shelters. According to Bourdieu (1983), these challenges create an additional obstacle towards achieving academic success¡ªthat is, a lack of cultural capital. He argued that without this non-financial asset, social mobility is unachievable and that ¡°it is in fact impossible [for individuals] to account for the structure and functioning of the world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms¡± (p. 242).

Brownsville Academy High School serves a very specific population of youth. Liberal-leaning policy makers argue that ¡°mixing low-income people with the middle class [can give] them access to values, social networks and resources¡± that level an otherwise unequal playing field. This can ultimately result in greater learning opportunities (Lipman, 2009, p. 215). Despite these students¡¯ limited access to the middle class, Brownsville Academy attempts to increase its mostly black and Latino students¡¯ access to cultural capital by integrating concepts, practices, curriculum, and services that address the cultural capital theory in its three basic forms: the embodied, objectified, and institutionalized states.

Bourdieu (1983) called the embodied state any type of ¡°long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body¡± (p. 243). Support service staff, like social workers, guidance counselors, substance abuse and intervention specialists, as well as highly committed teachers and administrators seek to promote self-awareness, self-esteem and personal growth through daily interactions with students. Scholars are recognized through all-school announcements and reward programs for improvements in attendance, grades and overall performance. Every classroom is equipped with computers and student laptops. Several have SmartBoards for presentations and all have a pleasant, welcoming feel because of decorations and new, matching desks. These commodities factor into what Bourdieu (1983) calls the objectified state, or cultural goods like pictures, dictionaries, instruments and machines that allow for access to cultural capital (p 243). The school¡¯s library is stocked with novels by famous black authors, as well as magazines and books on a wide variety of topics. Cultural capital in the objectified state that cannot be accessed from inside Brownsville Academy is frequently made available to students through additional programs outside of the school. Students are taken to eat at restaurants, where they learn to dine like businessmen. Others are given opportunities to watch professional sports at Madison Square Garden, or visit college campuses outside of New York City. The school¡¯s diploma- plus requirements go above and beyond the state mandate to insure that all graduates of Brownsville Academy receive cultural capital in its institutionalized state (p. 243).


According to Austin (2005), ¡°practitioners and policy-makers must work to improve a wide range of factors simultaneously…rather than focusing services solely [on academics]. Promising practices increasingly reflect a more holistic approach¡± to the multiple and complex challenges facing low-income students (p. 116). Brownsville Academy High School administrators, teachers and support staff, recognize the importance of this best practice. As a result, the school takes a holistic approach to student learning because of a shared understanding that outside factors¡ªlike family and environment¡ªcan play a key role in students¡¯ opportunities to achieve success.

This concept of intersectionality suggests that culturally constructed categories of discrimination¡ªlike race and class¡ªinteract on multiple levels to contribute to social inequality. This means that students at Brownsville Academy from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are facing not just one degree of discrimination, but scores that are deeply interconnected. Ladson- Billings argues that, ¡°thinking of race strictly as an ideological construct denies the reality of a racialized society and its impact on ¡®raced¡¯ people in their every day lives,¡± (1995, p. 48). Administrators at Brownsville work hard to get students to think beyond their skin color. Teach- ers do not employ subtractive schooling methods, which are used to deny learners their culture or heritage. Instead, students are taught to believe that their race is not the determining factor in whether or not they will succeed. Rather, hard work and dedication will decide which students come out on top. Administration subscribes to the belief that ¡°race is a matter of both social structure and cultural representation¡± (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 50). As a result, scholars at Brownsville are required to write essays about their country of origin and family roots as part of the portfolio-plus component.

Application of the intersectionality theory reflects a constructivist paradigm, which ¡°suggests that reality is [created] through…the shared experiences of groups¡± (Williams, 2006, p. 212). This gives credence to the notion that outside factors can have a serious influence on seemingly closed systems like schools. For this reason, Brownsville staff use daily data collection to track and monitor every student¡¯s attendance, grades, and behavior. Ensuring all scholars have a personal relationship with at least one member of the Brownsville staff means that outside stressors like homelessness, family crisis, drug abuse, and violence can be immediately addressed by a member of the support team. As a result, teens are able to connect with the services they need and continue on course to graduation without having to leave the school.


In addition to employing the theories of cultural capital and intersectionality at Brownsville Academy High School, the staff at this public institution integrates empowerment theory into regular practice with students as well. This is a ¡°process by which individuals and groups gain power, access to resources and control over their own lives¡± (Robbins, Chatter- jee & Canda, 1998, p. 9). Brownsville Principal LaShawn Robinson has said that application of this theory is essential to learner success¡ª particularly at an alternative school. Students must develop confidence in their own capabilities if they plan to achieve goals like earning a diploma or attending college.

Applying this theory, which was born out of the work of Freire (1970), to educational practice allows students to ¡°gain the ability to achieve their highest personal and collective aspirations and goals¡± (Robbins, Chatterjee & Canda, 1998, p. 91). It emphasizes the agency of scholars and encourages a sense of self- determination. Teachers put the onus on students to accomplish their work and achieve their goals. They reject the notion that challenges around learning arise from personal shortcomings rather than societal ones.

Brownsville Academy approaches empowerment theory through the application of a developmental triangle, with ¡°the core instructional program, the academic, social, cultural and recreational enrichment offerings designed to expand students¡¯ opportunities for learning, and the support services that can remove barriers to learning¡± (Kirp, 2010, p. 27). The school serves as a family for students who do not have one, and it provides the supportive and encouraging structure necessary for personal achievement. A strengths-based approach, which focuses on learners¡¯ strengths, allows students at Brownsville to better identify characteristics and qualities that can lead to success.

In 2009, Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York City public schools stated, ¡°no single impediment to closing the nation¡¯s shameful achievement gap looms larger than the culture of excuse¡± (Kirp, 2010, p. 27). And while Brownsville Academy¡¯s staff recognizes that many of its students are coping with serious life issues beyond the classroom that can make succeeding in school a serious challenge, they refuse to allow these factors to become justification for failure. They empower students to be- come agents of change in their own lives. Additionally, administrators have armed the school with a wealth of specialists¡ªfrom intervention and substance abuse counselors to social workers and mediation teams. These specialists assist scholars when, despite the encouragement and in-class attention, they feel unable to do it alone.


According to Kirp (2010), ¡°It¡¯s logical that youngsters¡¯ test scores will improve if you give them the help they need¡± (p. 29). For students at Brownsville Academy High School, this means receiving not just in-class attention and after-school help with group assignments and homework, but more holistic services that address the biopsychosocial needs of scholars as well. Individual therapy, college counseling, substance abuse intervention, mediation and other non-academic services, provide a stable environment where the holistic needs of students are addressed so that learners can truly succeed.

Last year, roughly fifty percent of the Brownsville senior class graduated, and while this number may be small compared to other more traditional schools, it is unlikely these students would have graduated at all had it not been for Brownsville Academy. This institution is often seen as a last-chance at a diploma for students who failed to thrive in more mainstream schools. By attending to individual student needs and circumstances beyond the scope of the classroom, the administration is able to foster an environment of respect, acceptance, and ultimately, success. Applying the theories of cultural capital, intersectionality and empowerment to educational practice allows Brownsville staff to provide a wealth of supportive services for special needs. Non-traditional offerings, particularly those that provide access to upper-middle class knowledge and experiences, are what allow students to succeed amid numerous life challenges. Where most schools approach scholars from a strictly academic lens, administrators at Brownsville recognize that this limited approach is not enough for these scholars.

Brownsville staff subscribe to the belief that the ¡°pursuit of full humanity … cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity¡± (Freire, 1970, p. 85). Because of this, they partner not just with one another in the pursuit of excellence, but with outside agencies and services that support more than just the academic success of scholars. These actions encourage social success as well. Brownsville offers an educational model for the holistic approach to student wellbeing, which includes a strong focus on the biopsychosocial needs of scholars through the application of social services. The staff provides a support network that bridges students to scholastic achievement. Teachers approach learners not just as pupils in a classroom, but as individuals with lives and circumstances beyond school that have potential to influence their performance in class. Support staff, like college counselors, social workers, intervention specialists, and mediators play a role that is equal to teachers in the educational process. By addressing students in this holistic manner¡ªone that recognizes the impact of complex systems on scholars and constantly exposes learners to cultural capital on a regular basis¡ªBrownsville Academy ensures that this last-chance at a high school diploma provides students with a fair chance at their futures.


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About the Author

Jill Nawrocki is a first year student at HCSSW, where she is pursing a Masters in Social Work with Indi- viduals and Families in the global field of practice. Jill holds a Bachelors of Arts from New York University¡¯s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where her concentration was in media and the formation of cultural memory. She is a former journalist and recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Jill works as a research assistant to Martha Bragin, chair of the Global Social Work Department at Hunter College. She can be reached at

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