Virge Ramos and Peter Wilson were almost laid off during the first year of BSGE’s existence. And, students in the first year were promised laptops if they came to the school.
The Baccalaureate School for Global Education has travelled a long way since 2002. The first year of BSGE had to share its space with Robert F. Wagner Secondary School for Arts and Technology, and only had a seventh and ninth grade. There were a meager 50-55 students in the seventh grade compared to around 80 students now, 60-65 students in the ninth grade, and only 11 teachers.
“The overwhelming majority of the student population was from Queens; students of color from working class backgrounds,” said Ms. Karina Hurtado, an alum from the first year of BSGE. “We were referred to as ‘guinea pigs’ for a groundbreaking new approach to the way NYC did education.”
The principal at the time, Bill Stroud, convinced students to join this new and groundbreaking school by saying “you just need to prove that you WANT to be here, that you want to get a good education. Take the test and you’re in,” recalled Ms. Hurtado. However, the school went the extra mile by promising students free laptops if they joined the first year. Yet, those laptops were never given.
The BSGE division of Wagner High School, which is a little over a mile away from our current building, used to be a warehouse, and had only four classrooms. The cafeteria served as yet another classroom, but it was a noisy place to learn. If a truck were to load outside of the school, the rumblings of this truck would be heard for the rest of the day.
BSGE’s English teacher. Ms. Kumar, has taught in BSGE since the very beginning. She described the “excitement in starting something new with a group of people.”
This group included Ms. Shen, Peter Wilson, and Shantanu Saha. Ms. Kumar said that one thing she doesn’t miss is “having to do everything ourselves.” Doing everything meant everything – teachers were expected to order books, establish curriculum, while also creating an ideal environment for students to thrive in. Thankfully, now there a few more teachers that can help with so many tasks. In 2002, there were only ten or twelve who shared the burden of managing all things BSGE. Now, there are thirty or so teachers to manage the 450 students currently at the school. Ms. Kumar said she missed “friendships with people who left the building”, and “having their presence here…that’s what I miss.”
However, another aspect that Ms. Kumar did not miss was sharing space with another school. Ironically, she’s still sharing space with some teachers. One example of the little space teachers had to work with was Ms. Shen’s classroom. She had to fit 20-25 students in a classroom the size of a walk-in closet or the library’s lounge area.
Many of our school traditions now come from that first year. Even in 2002, the student body was incredibly diverse, meaning it took some time for everyone in the school to get along. It was very hard for the 9th graders and 7th graders to get along, given each student’s clashing backgrounds. Ms. Hurtado said, “People were coming from different neighborhoods, socio-economic backgrounds, expectations for their education and themselves, and varying levels of parent engagement.” The school’s art teacher, Tony, and its history teacher, Linda, attempted to buddy up the students together. This plan took a while to work, but eventually things fell into place.
Additionally, now it is much harder to organize school clubs because of budgeting and school hours, but Ms. Hurtado remembered that “students would have ideas for the school and they would could run up to the principal’s office either individually or in a group and the response would be: ‘Sounds great! Write me a proposal.’” Even our Day of Silence held for LGBTQ students was an event back then. Several parents raised concerns, but Ms. Hurtado said that “we were lucky enough to have faculty who outright called out the parent’s remarks as homophobic and disappointing, among them: Peter Wilson and Connie You.”
Ms. Hurtado commented that one of the great things about the teaching at BSGE was how they treated the children like adults. She said that when “George Bush Jr. was re-elected despite the widespread unpopularity of the War on Iraq, the principal sent out a memo for us to discuss during advising period regarding the importance of voting and civic participation: The debate was heated”. Now there may not be as many debates, but there are a lot of bake sales. Perhaps here’s where they came from, as Ms. Hurtado narrated:
“Apart from debating we were also expected to get involved. The next day after the Tsunami hit Sri Lanka or when a devastating hurricane hit Haiti, the Helping Hands Committee was collecting canned goods, coats, medical supplies from every single advisory in the school. Among other efforts were fundraisers to clear landmines, support child victims of human trafficking, etc.”
Another teacher that has been here since the first year of this school, current technology teacher Shantanu Saha, gave his thoughts on the origins of BSGE.
“That first year was very intense. The teachers and students developed a special bond, through our mutual hardships and growing pains in trying to teach and learn in a bad physical situation. Due to our cramped quarters we had to figure out creative ways to do things. For instance, when we had gym class we appropriated Wagner’s hallways as a warm-up track, and I told students to run three laps around the track at the beginning of gym class (yes, I was the gym teacher that first year!)”
The situation in Wagner was only supposed to be temporary, but construction of the current building that BSGE is located in was going slowly, meaning that instead of opening in the summer of 2003, the school would potentially open in the summer of 2004. Shantanu, his fellow colleagues, and parents continued to pressure the landlord of the new building and the School Construction Authority to finish renovating the building, so that they could move in. Finally, in 2003, the building was ready. But this didn’t mean everything was perfect. There was no working elevator or heating/cooling system. Since the elevator did not work, teachers had to move computer carts up the stairs to position them on each floor. Now, when students complain about how hard it is to move the computer carts, Shantanu just laughs.
On top of these hardships, the school was facing massive budget cuts, as we are now. Ms. Hurtado stated that in the first year, the school’s own beloved Virge and Peter were laid off temporarily because of budget cuts that were caused by the billion dollar budget deficit in 2003. In these budget cuts, instead of laying off teachers, the Department of Education decided to lay off school aides, such as Virge and Peter. However, after a few months, the budgets were reinstated, giving back Virge and Peter their jobs. In response to the budget cuts, many infuriated students got together and wrote a letters to have the budgets restored. They were inspired by Michael Moore, a director of a movie that they had seen in Peter’s human rights class, called “Bowling for Columbine.” This goes to show just how valued the two men are.
By the end of the second year things were better. The school took on a life that is pretty similar to BSGE’s now, with the exception of the students and teachers. But Shantanu hears from alumni from that time (many of them are Facebook friends) and they remember their experiences fondly.
Finally, Ms. Hurtado reminisced:
“Lily, the first chinese teacher we ever had, use to say: ‘This class is going to change the world.’ And we believed it, because it seemed like our teachers believed it also. It was clear not only in how they taught us, but how they treated us, the importance they gave to their time with us inside and outside the classroom. We were taught not only to think critically, but that we- immigrants, children of immigrants, working class kids of color- were to act boldly and change the world. At the time we rolled our eyes, joked about the adult’s overdramatic sentimentality- but I look around at my peers from that graduating class and I see the effect it had.”