It's science period, and a group of 11th graders is working up a head of steam debating New York City's effort to build an incinerator in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
"People act as if, if you put an incinerator right here, it won't get to them," Jennifer Suarez says. "But how are we going to expand the future and have another generation if pollutants are going to kill people?"
Class is in full swing at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a new public high school that weaves together basic education and everyday life as it plays out in an underserved, often violent corner of New York City. Created by two Latino activists determined to rebuild their neighborhood, it pledges to graduate "citizens committed to peace, justice, and human rights."
"Our mission is to reclaim our community and our young people," says school founder and director Frances Lucerna.
El Puente Academy is one of the most successful players in a small-school revolution sweeping New York and other big cities. Started in 1993 as a partnership between a community youth center and the New York City Board of Education, it is seen as a model in engaging students in areas where graduation rates typically hover around 20 percent.
The concept is also a magnet for controversy, with critics charging that the curriculum focuses too heavily on social activism. Most observers agree, however, that El Puente Academy is doing something sorely lacking in many urban schools: hooking kids into learning by lowering barriers between their home culture and their school. Indeed, cities such as Chicago and Denver have followed New York's example since it implemented the program.
"So many times kids feel that school is irrelevant to them, that it's not a place that is welcoming to them, so reconnecting them to their community has become an important part of the work to reform urban schools," says Ann Hallett of Cross City Campaigns for Big City Schools, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports school reform. "What's so wonderful about El Puente is that there isn't any break between the school and the community."
El Puente Academy is located in a tough neighborhood occupied by crowded apartment buildings, empty factories, and a toxic-waste storage plant. "The right to breathe clean air is not something we can take for granted," says Luis Garden Acosta, who, along with Ms. Lucerna, founded El Puente, the youth center that spawned the academy.
It is readily apparent upon entering the converted church the academy calls home that this is no typical inner-city school. The walls are colorful, decorated with murals of figures involved in the struggle for human rights, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Evangelina Rodriguez, the first Dominican woman to become a medical doctor. Academy teachers - or "facilitators" - say they receive as much from students as they teach them.
"I'm not only a facilitator, I'm also the basketball coach, the guy they can trust, a friend they hang out with," says Hector Caldern. "Students look at El Puente and see facilitators that look like them: We have gone through what they have gone through, we are real people, and it inspires them."
For the school's 110 students, learning takes place in and out of the building. Students, for example, organized an immunization drive for local children. For a math and science class, they turned vacant lots into community gardens and designed ads opposing pollution and cigarettes. They have petitioned City Hall for more trees for their neighborhood.
For many students, such efforts spell their first real interest in education. "While I was doing this project, I was feeling a sense of connection to the community," says 11th-grader Geimy Coln.
Ms. Coln failed most of her classes in a Manhattan school and had decided to drop out. "The teachers would tell me, 'You don't want to learn? Don't learn. I'm still getting my paycheck,' " says Coln, now a straight-A student.
El Puente was born in the early 1980s out of anger at seeing Williamsburg's young people fall prey to drugs, gang violence, and government neglect. Mr. Garden Acosta, a child of the housing projects and a Latino activist, had left Williamsburg to study medicine at Harvard University. But he came back to work in the local hospital.
After watching young people die in the emergency room, victims of drugs and gunshots, and becoming concerned that a generation of Latinos was being lost, Garden Acosta rallied community leaders and parents to create a safe haven for youths.
That's when he became reacquainted with Ms. Lucerna, who is now his wife. She had left Williamsburg to attend college and become a professional dancer. She also returned to teach dance and theater.
As teens, the two had been mentors and community activists, inspired by the Bible's teachings and the idealistic overtones of the 1960s. " 'Community' used to suggest a real need to connect," Lucerna says. "It's given shape and meaning to our lives."
In 1982, with a private grant and many volunteers, the two converted a former church into a youth center. It housed a health clinic and an arts and sports center. They named it El Puente: a "bridge" for community building.
Through El Puente, young people grew as a community force. They helped elect the first Latino parent on the local school board. They rallied against a toxic-waste storage plant and police brutality. Their achievements at El Puente contrasted sharply with their dismal performances in the local schools, convincing El Puente's founders of the need to create a school of their own.
At the youth center, Lucerna says, teenagers were not only learning academic skills through activism but "they were also understanding why these conditions exist in a community like ours - a poor community of color - and what the responsibilities of government are. Then, the young people themselves started organizing and understanding what their rights were, too."
The academy that followed the youth center was the result of a breakthrough initiative to reform public schools. New York City, working with the nonprofit Fund for New York City Public Education, invited bids for small schools to be planned "from the ground up by the community." El Puente was one of 16 "New Vision Schools" to open as a "regular" public school in partnership with the Board of Education.
The first graduating class is still more than a year away. But so far, students at El Puente Academy outscore peers in similar communities on standardized math and reading tests. El Puente Academy "educates students through community issues while taking them through very rigorous intellectual standards," says Michelle Fine of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, an urban-school expert who is evaluating the school.
Nevertheless, the emphasis on social action isn't to the liking of everyone. "Part of teaching is to get students to think more deeply and not go out and carry picketing signs," says Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education under former President Bush. "If you're only exposed to problems with one solution, is that a good solution for life?"
Chester Finn, a conservative national expert on education, deems the curriculum "left wing," but says, "If the school connects with kids and gets them to take an interest in education and not get in trouble, I'm willing to go along with a curriculum I may not have intellectual respect for."
While it's too early to say whether El Puente will succeed, observers speak optimistically of the transformation of many students. Says Naomi Barber of the Fund for New York City Public Education: "When kids learn that they can build things to make their community better, they have power over their own lives."