How a Bronx alternative school became a ‘place of solace for all’

These D.C. educators visited a school in the Bronx that serves under served kids, but uses blended, personalized learning to help their students reach their goals. Here's what they learned from the trip.

By Ashley Brown

Even if schools have vastly different models, all educators share the same mission: We want #OurKids and #OurStudents to be successful. And we can all learn from each other.

At Washington Leadership Academy, we recently had an inspiring visit to Bronx Arena, an alternative “transfer” school in New York City that serves over-age, under-credited students, using blended, personalized learning to help students catch up academically, graduate, and reach their goals.

Our conversations with Ty Cesene, the principal, were relaxed and refreshing. In learning about the model of Bronx Arena and another transfer school in Brooklyn, we gained a few takeaways that clearly underscored why these schools are successful.

Compassion and commitment

Every teacher in the world puts in hours beyond the scope of their pay. That takes compassion, commitment, and a whole lot of love and care. At Bronx Arena, there was no question as to whether or not the head of the school was invested in the lives and success of the students. Sitting with him in the room, I could see his heart, his care, and his compassion for the students. No matter what he had going on in his personal life, he found a way to show up and be present. That commitment in turn makes his staff show up.

Generalist teachers and content specialist teachers

Ever heard of push-ins? Traditionally, push-in teachers are special education teachers. But at Bronx Arena, content specialists teach subjects such as science and social studies, while generalist teachers hold down the daily, general “push-in” support that happens in each arena. They work closely with the advocate counselors assigned to each room in order to reach the whole child.

Advocate counselors

Students at Bronx Arena have access to it all. They not only have access to high-quality academic instruction, but they also have access to counselors — people who are there for them when school or life gets overwhelming, and who can advocate for them when they cannot advocate for themselves. The staff at Bronx Arena works to create a family environment and meet the needs of the whole student. They recognize that success is only achieved through meeting students’ needs, not just academically but socio-emotionally. In addition, counseling helps students connect to each other. Students spoke of how they help push each other along and celebrate each other, while still working towards their own success.


Students at Bronx Arena all have a plan. The famous quote, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” is taken very seriously at this school. Students go through an intake process and are given a plan to earn their high school diplomas. That plan is frequently visited, revised, and updated as needed. Students are given a large degree of autonomy and ownership in choosing and completing projects. One student stated that she was completing her project on child development, a subject she chose because she is a mom. Bronx Arena recognizes that students have a higher level of engagement and chance of success when they can connect to their coursework on a personal level.


While meeting with the principal, the words “self-management” came up over and over. A large portion of student success relies on students managing their own education. At Bronx Arena, students have complete control over when they start and finish a task, and each task gets them closer to graduation day. Regular check-ins with teachers and advocate counselors set students up for success. Career counselors, internship coordinators, teachers, principals, parents, and peers all help students become self-managers and truly in control of their future.

School culture

Walking through the halls, I felt a strong sense not just of student voice, but student empowerment. Hallways were decorated with student work, letters of encouragement, college acceptance letters, and an overall sense of self. Each student identified with the school and regarded it with respect. When asked about the occurrence of fights and school culture, one young man’s response was this: “Not really. Why would that happen? We all have a goal and nothing gets in the way of that!”

When students are given responsibility and freedom, the results can be astounding. On the other hand, when students are constantly getting “hand-outs,” given extra time, or having things done for them, they are essentially being enabled. College preparation and career readiness are not happening. The leaders, teachers, and support staff of Bronx Arena are setting their students up to succeed inside and outside of the school walls — where the world they’ll face is full of ambiguity, challenges and opportunity.

While Bronx Arena and Washington Leadership Academy serve different students and have different models, we have the same goal: to do what is best for our students. Both our schools aspire to be the kinds of schools we dreamt of as kids: a place where learning happens, and a place of true solace for all.

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