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Building Oz in the Projects

Ira Weston, Principal of Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology on Albany Avenue in Brooklyn, sees his glass as half full. While "at risk" might be the term others would use to describe the 1,500 primarily African American students who attend Robeson - a forbidding-looking fortress of a building in one of the City's poorest neighborhoods - Weston prefers to call them "at promise." _ "It's just a way you define your own reality," he says. "I would rather be a principal of a school with 1,500 'at promise' students than 1,500 'at risk' students. I look for the good in kids. I look for the majesty and talent rather than the deficits."

Ira Weston, Principal of Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology on Albany Avenue in Brooklyn, sees his glass as half full. While "at risk" might be the term others would use to describe the 1,500 primarily African American students who attend Robeson - a forbidding-looking fortress of a building in one of the City's poorest neighborhoods - Weston prefers to call them "at promise." _ "It's just a way you define your own reality," he says. "I would rather be a principal of a school with 1,500 'at promise' students than 1,500 'at risk' students. I look for the good in kids. I look for the majesty and talent rather than the deficits."

It's a way of seeing that Weston says he developed when he served in the Peace Corps in Kenya in 1983.

"I learned more from my students in Kenya than I ever taught them," he says. "Oh my Lo rd, they just amazed me every single day with their sense of commitment, their sense of optimism, their sense of community, their sense of pride, their sense of inquiry."

When Weston returned from Kenya, he enrolled in TC's Peace Corps Fellows Program, which recruits Peace Corps veterans into careers in urban teaching. His first and only field placement through the program was at Robeson as a substitute science teacher in 1986.

Last year, Weston, 49, and five other educators were honored by the Peace Corps Fund with the first Dorothy Cann Hamilton Life of Service Awards, presented at a special ceremony by Caroline Kennedy.

Twenty years of service hasn't slowed him down. Weston - a man in constant motion, whether roaming the hallways of his school or multitasking in his office while talking to a visitor - seems determined to make his students fulfill their promise through the sheer force of his personality. He cajoles, incites and inspires them to persevere in a tough environment. At the same time, he views it as his solemn obligation to protect them in every way he can.

"The reality is that we are a school in an urban setting in a very challenged neighborhood," he says. "We are across from one of the most dangerous housing projects in the City, in a precinct with one of the highest crime rates in the City. So we have tried to create a sanctuary for our students."

At first glance, that might seem to mean nothing more than the grim security measures that have become standard at most large urban high schools. Inside Robeson's front door, three School Safety Officers man the front desk and a sign lists all the things that are not allowed in the school: doo- rags, scarves, bandannas, headbands, gang colors, head phones, Walkmans, cell phones, beepers. Beyond the front desk, however, everything begins to change. First there's the color of the walls: a bright, decidedly non-institutional orange.

"When the students walk in, they're walking into Oz," Weston says. "If you remember the movie, when Dorothy lands and walks out of her house, everything's in color. So when you walk in my front door, you walk into Oz."

Down the hallway to the left, decorated shields and spears, the work of the Robeson African Dance and Improv Ensemble, are displayed in a case.

Then there's the messaging. The walls are filled with quotations:

"A vision without an action is but a dream." - Joel Barker.

"The most important form of learning, the most sophisticated form of staff development, comes not from listening to the good words of others, but from sharing what we know with each other."--Roland Barthes.

And most inspiring of all: the faces and school names of the 58 members of the 2004-05 class accepted to college. Close to 70 percent of Robeson students who graduate in four years go to college, while 85 percent of the entire student body graduates in five years. That's compared with New York State's 35 percent graduation rate for African American students.

"I tell the kids, -'I don't care whether you finish in four years or five--just finish,'" Weston says. "As long as you're going to class and earning credits you can stay at Paul Robeson. But when you start hanging out in the halls, no, you gotta go. Don't be hanging out in the halls, causing me problems."

Another message adorning Robeson's walls is a bit more unexpected - the signs urging students to opt out when U. S. military recruiters come to call.

"The federal law is, any school that gets federal funding, we must supply to military recruiters names, addresses and phone numbers of all our kids," Weston says. "It doesn't count for private schools, only public schools. The military comes to these schools in the urban setting and tries to recruit the kids. But kids or their parents can opt out. So what we do is give every kid a letter explaining what their options are. And then when the recruiters come, I give them maybe two pages of names. But it's not 1,400. They get angry, but that's the law. I don't want the recruiters negotiating with my students without the school being part of the conversation."

Why resist the recruiters? "I'm an educator for social justice,"

Weston says. "And I believe that race and class have a lot to do with our policies and how we run the schools. So I'm trying to get my kids to be socially cognizant of issues. We try to be on the cutting edge of social issues that impact kids, to make the school experience very relevant to what's going on in society. And I also think education needs to support oppressed populations and help them deal with some of these policies that they confront in their lives."

Weston is a curious mixture of world traveler and homebody.

He was born in France but grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and represented the third generation in his family to graduate from Virginia Union University.

His father, a U. S. Army colonel, retired in 1963, but Weston grew up hearing his travel stories. He says he watched his father's home movies from Korea, France and the Philippines, looked at his photographs and "knew I had the travel bug."

In the Peace Corps, he taught near Kenya's Lake Victoria, about 50 miles from the Ugandan border. The school had no electricity or running water; Weston and his students lived in huts. The villagers called him "the man from California" - the extent of their knowledge of U. S. geography.

The experience made him aware of the respect accorded to teachers: When a baby goat was born, the villagers named it after him - "a significant honor," he says. But he learned humility as well. Once, when asked by the headmaster to address the parents of the children at the school, none of whom spoke English, Weston asked one of his students to stand beside him and translate. He began his speech with a funny story. The student said something to the parents, who laughed uproariously.

"They really liked my story, didn't they?" Weston said to the student afterwards. "Oh no, Walimu," the student said, addressing him with a Swahili word for teacher. "I knew they wouldn't understand, so I just told them to laugh for the American teacher."

From Kenya, Weston traveled for a year and a half, teaching in Thailand, Japan, China and Saudi Arabia. He came home and sold men's suits at the local J.C. Penney while teaching summer school. Finally, in 1985, he entered the Peace Corps Fellows Program at TC.

"The Peace Corps Fellows Program was a wonderful and invigorating extension of my Peace Corps service," Weston says. "It allowed me to integrate a rigorous academic program with practice in a very challenging environment. This, of course, could have been overwhelming if not for the support systems built into the Fellows Program. We met often in groups with our advisors for support and practical advice." As an alumnus of the program, Weston is now part of that support system.

"We have much to learn from Ira," says Reed Dickson, current Peace Corps Fellows Program Director at TC. "He is the College's equity mission exemplified. He reflects the commitment to City schools that we hope for from all of our teachers."

Perhaps because of his own travels, Weston sees broadening students' horizons as a critical part of that commitment. "Paul Robeson is a school that's focused on total student development," he says. "Not just academic development, but social development, broadening their opportunities to achieve. Students learn in many different contexts. It's a fallacy to believe that all learning takes place in school. I think that [ghettoized] urban students do not achieve as greatly as other students across the country because they never get out of that urban setting. They never see themselves as being able to inhabit other worlds."

One way Weston has tried to counteract his students' isolation is by developing partnerships with outside organizations. For example, a Princeton alumni group called Princeton ReachOut '56 works with the school in a number of ways, including coaching kids on applying to college, staying in college and pursuing careers.

Jim Freund, a Princeton ReachOut '56 member, was inspired by his experience with the school to create a yearly photography contest for Robeson students in Central Park. Freund, a former partner at the New York City-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and the author of two photography books, takes about 20 students each year to Manhattan, gives them disposable cameras and sets them loose in the park, a place many have never seen before despite its proximity.

He then makes a montage of the best efforts by each student to be displayed at the school and awards the winner a camera. It's a connection that might not have been made, but for Weston.

"When we set out to try to do some good in the world, it did not come that easily," says Freund. "There weren't many people who were clamoring for our group's services. And the fact that Ira recognized that 70-year-old white guys could be of some help to the 16-year-old black kids at his school hit the right note."

The school also has a partnership with Citigroup that has lasted for 19 years. In 2004, the company gave the school a $178,000 grant towards one of its five computer rooms, dubbed the Citigroup Robeson Technology Center. Citigroup also helps Robeson with college advising, summer jobs, professional development for students and faculty members, and a special "last dollar" award, which each year provides 10 students almost all of the resources they need to attend four or even five years of college.

And still another partnership, with ATLAS Communities (Authentic Teaching and Learning for All Students), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, features "whole-faculty study groups," in which faculty members from all disciplines get together to find ways to meet various key student needs. One faculty group at Robeson recently focused on "accountable talk"--getting students to speak more in class and to use various kinds of supporting evidence to answer questions.

Weston says one of his proudest moments as a principal came when he realized the faculty study groups were beginning to work.

"I walked through the teachers' lounge, which is usually a place where teachers go to complain, and the teachers were in a group talking about how they could help kids better," he says. "They weren't putting kids down."

In his long tenure at Robeson, Weston estimates he has watched thousands of kids graduate. His favorite moments are when former students come back to visit. "The kids always tell me what I meant to them and what they learned from my classes. They'll say, -'Do you remember when you pulled me aside and you told me this'--and I don't really remember everything I've said to kids, but I get to feel like my life really matters. I believe every moment with a child is a teachable moment, and I try to make that true."

Twenty years is a lot of teachable moments. "I never thought I would be in New York for 20 years," he says. "Every time I tried to leave or wanted to think about going back to Virginia, I was offered another position or got a promotion. And then I got married in 1992, and my wife is from the Caribbean and speaks five languages. So she likes the cultural diversity in New York. And we just never moved back."

Much has changed at Robeson since he arrived, Weston says.

"I think there have been substantial positive changes. I think our school is a school of true staff collaboration. We have a sense of learning, a sense of purpose and a sense of passion for kids. I think our data can reflect that."

At the same time, as a result of a new emphasis on smaller schools, Robeson has lost its magnet status and now draws a larger, less select student population with, for the first time in Weston's tenure, a substantial majority of boys.

"We have a very challenged population of students," Weston says. "We are about 90 percent eligible for federal free lunch. A majority of the students enter in the lowest quartile in English and math from their junior high school and are so very weak in those skills."

And then, in 20 years anywhere, stuff simply happens. This past fall, Larry Major, a popular teacher and basketball coach, committed suicide after he was arrested on charges of rape and endangering the welfare of a child. Prosecutors said he had had a three-year sexual relationship with a student that began when she was 14, according to the New York Times. It fell to Weston to perform the difficult task of speaking at Major's funeral.

"I told people that this tragedy helped us to understand the power of community," he recalls. "How we were able to support each other and understand that each of us has the power of choice. That we may not understand other people's choices, but that the choice is theirs to make. However, when we make choices, we must also accept the responsibility that accompanies that choice.

Major made a choice--and God does not intend for us to understand all things. But we must accept it, and hopefully the power of our school community will help us all through it."

In that vein, Weston recited his favorite poem, "Invictus" by William Henley, and then concluded the service with some poetry of his own: "And when the eagles soar over the mountains of New York and glide gracefully across the avenues of Brooklyn, may they take you to a restful place."

Weston is given to contemplating his own exit from Robeson these days. "I'm getting tired," he says. "I want to teach junior college."

To that end, this past spring, he was working to complete a doctoral thesis at New York University.

"New York State has the lowest black student high school graduating rate, 35 percent over four years," he says. "In New York City, it's 32 percent - only 32 percent of the African American kids graduate in four years. And that's about 29 percent male and about 33 or 34 percent female. I'm going to look at that 32 percent. My study will be on successful African American students. I'm going to follow three of those students for six months to a year. I want to know about their experiences in high school. Usually we study failure, but I want to know what experiences these kids had to make them stay in school and finish in four years." Still, it's hard to imagine him letting go. Standing outside the school, recently, he surveyed the Albany Homes housing project. "I never thought I'd be dealing with Bloods and Crips," he says. The realities of surviving in this neighborhood may make gangs inevitable, but not in Weston's classrooms. "I can't control what goes on out there. If you are in a gang I respect you. But I have no tolerance for that nonsense inside."

Published Thursday, Sep. 28, 2006