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Charter school at epicenter of COVID-19 crisis steps up to help through the pandemic

Courtesy Erika Espinoza
Courtesy Erika Espinoza

BY: ARIELLE MITROPOULOS AND NADINE SHUBAILAT,  ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) — A great education “should not only be for students who are super rich,” asserts Graham Browne, executive director and founder of Forte Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free, public school alternative for fifth to eighth grade students.

But with school closures across the country, the socioeconomic gap between disadvantaged and affluent children is further widening.

As unemployment numbers rise to staggering heights, and families face tremendous financial challenges, low-income youths continue to be disproportionately affected by the consequences of coronavirus, and particularly with their education. Many students lack the essential digital tools and resources needed to study remotely.

Forte Prep is in East Elmhurst, New York, one of several working-class neighborhoods at the epicenter of New York City’s coronavirus crisis.

Despite the ravaging pandemic, the school is determined not to let the virus impact the education of its students.

The power of education as an equalizer was experienced first-hand by Browne, the son of Caribbean immigrants, who was raised in New Jersey, and graduated from Brown University and the Yale School of Management.

Browne’s local high school was among the lowest-performing, but his parents did not have the means to move. His mother found a scholarship program that allowed him to attend the prestigious St. Paul School in New Hampshire. The experience changed Browne’s perspective on opportunities and education.

“It was a real eye-opener,” Brown told ABC News. “This school was so focused on making sure that everybody was succeeding.”

His education inspired him to establish Forte Prep in 2017, with Justin Smith, the school’s founding principal.

“Students should not have to travel 250 miles away from home to get a world-class education,” Browne said, “It should be available right in New York City.”

The school strives to prepare students to excel academically and behaviorally, with the goal of ultimately ensuring college becomes a reality for every student.

Its 270 students are mostly from low-income and minority families and many of them are first-generation Americans. As a group, “they’re incredible, thoughtful, and just great,” Brown explained.

“There’s a lot riding on our academic performance, so that students will be successful in high school and college and life,” added Browne.

This Spring, Forte Prep was named in the top 13% of high-performing schools in New York state.

“This is the most rewarding and important work that I can think of doing,” Browne said.

Erika Espinoza, whose 13-year-old daughter, Hailey Muñoz, is a seventh grader at the school, told ABC News that sending her daughter to Forte Prep was the best decision she ever made.

“They have become like our second family because we have always been with each other,” Muñoz said.

Fearing for the health of his students, and their families, and acutely aware of the challenges of continuing to operate in such a densely populated community, Browne opted to close the school in mid-March, days before the city’s decision to shutter all schools.

“At the time it seemed a scary and bold decision, but it very quickly became clear it was the right call,” Browne explained.

There were numerous challenges to shifting to remote learning, the first ensuring all students were connected to the internet and able to work from home. The school loaned two-thirds of its computers to students. Families without internet, were shown how to access Wi-Fi for free.

Because of its small size, the school was able to act more nimbly than schools with a larger student body. Students were set up with remote learning within a week of the school’s closing.

Espinoza, who also has a son enrolled in New York City public school, stressed how well-organized Forte Prep was from the very beginning.

“My experience with my son has been a disaster. The Department of Education just hasn’t had it together. Forte was just much more organized from the start. Once they shut down, by the next week, they were in class,” Espinoza said.

However, “It was and continues to be tough,” Browne admitted.

Many students live in cramped home settings, making it difficult for them to find productive spaces to get work done — further complicated when family members get sick and have to be quarantined.

“Our team has been creative and innovative, bringing their classes to life and finding new opportunities in the challenge, rather than being beat down by it. It has been an all hands-on deck process,” said Browne.

“Our teachers have done literally everything humanly possible to get our kids learning as much as they can,” added Smith.

Another challenge for the school has been funding. Although public charter schools receive state and federal funds, many also rely on private donations, a process complicated by the current economic crisis. The school has reached out to some corporations and to foundations for grants, but the response has been low.

Fundraising efforts have been redirected to supporting the students and their families. Many students have faced devastating personal loss because of the virus, so the school’s community came together to provide care packages for families in need.

To date, the school has $14,000 for its family relief fund to buy grocery store gift cards for families ineligible for the federal stimulus checks.

“Our job is to make sure they are learning, it is also to make sure that they’re safe at home and their families have the support they need. We take both of those equally seriously,” Smith said. “It has changed from our kids being sort of silly and cavalier, to being afraid to go outside, and being worried anytime anyone they know is a little bit sick because they know what the consequences can be.”

“Our support to them is holistic,” said Browne. “I think they really appreciate the care and the time that we are spending to try to help them meet their needs.”

As with all schools in the nation, there is uncertainty about the summer and fall. Browne said there are several contingency plans to prepare the school for all scenarios.

“I worry about a potential COVID slide with students who have been making steady progress from September to March, will lose up to half or more of what they’ve learned when they return back to a school seat. I think this scenario will have pretty acute impact on our students and other students. We have to develop a new model to return to some version of normalcy.”

Despite all the difficulties, the team at Forte Prep continues to serve its community, and push its students to persevere. “My dream is to finish my education, that’s for sure. I think the sky’s the limit,” Muñoz said.

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