A Bronx Miracle: Meet the Woman Behind NYC's Best Public High School

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Eleventh grader JP created this water color, 'C Train,' to embody the TAPCo experience. (Illustration Courtesy TAPCo)

The Fordham section of the Bronx is plagued by poverty, drugs and urban decay. The odds are stacked against children who attend Fordham's underfunded public schools.

“There are many schools in the [NYC] system, and resources are not equitably distributed,” Lynn Passarella, founding principal of Fordham's Theatre Arts Production Company School (TAPCo), told TakePart in a recent phone interview.

When her students stage a play, they make do with a theater that’s barely equipped, and a lighting system that hasn’t been updated since 1975. The school fields a competitive soccer team, but can’t afford a real soccer pitch. Players practice on a cement-encased area that closely resembles a gutter.

Yet, in true fairytale fashion, TAPCo’s story has taken on a Cinderella twist. When New York City’s Department of Education released its annual progress report earlier this month, Principal Passarella was shocked by the results.

Out of the city’s 422 public high schools, TAPCo topped the list.

“We’re really a school that’s kind of made from nothing, and has become exemplary,” Passarella says. “We’re this little school on 182nd and Webster Avenue, and our kids are having the same experiences as their affluent peers, without the resources of their affluent peers.”

A PRINCIPAL'S PROMISE

Ms. Passarella started her career in the theater. When she left the stage to become an educator, Passarella incorporated her love of the arts into her classroom.

With 11 years of teaching under her belt, she opened a small public middle school with a competitive theater program. She and her teaching staff made it TAPCo’s mission to prepare students for acceptance into New York City’s best performing arts high schools.

But socio-economic factors got in the way.

Many of the choice Manhattan high schools TAPCo’s students set their sights on heavily favored local residents during the admissions process. TAPCo’s students hailed primarily from the Bronx. Even the most talented graduates were at a disadvantage.

Principal Passarella and her staff watched as their rising ninth graders disappeared into large and impersonal neighborhood high schools.

Promising students lost interest, slipped through the cracks, and dropped out.

“We would see the same kids that were amazing scholars standing out on street corners,” Passarella says. “Our teachers would see them on the way to the train, and they’d be like: ‘You’re not going to believe who I just saw hanging out with the local drug dealers.’ We believed that if we started a high school, that just wouldn’t happen.”

So in 2005, TAPCo expanded and added on a new high school. Its first class graduated in 2009 with 97 percent of students receiving diplomas.

In 2010, every single one of its graduates went on to college. Some received full scholarships to universities like Syracuse, NYU and Northeastern.

Asked to divulge the secret behind her school’s phenomenal success, Passarella is quick to answer:

“Doing this job is really, really hard, but the answer is really easy. If you absolutely, with every ounce of belief, believe that 100 percent of your students will go to college, they will.”

She explains that many principals and teachers in other schools don’t expect all of their students to be college bound. When school officials don’t dedicate themselves to pursuing that goal, students don’t either.

Teachers won't teach at TAPCo for long, she says, unless they operate under the assumption that every kid will be heading to college.

“That bar is set really high. It takes a lot of energy and resourcefulness to make it happen… We’re relentless about making sure that our kids have the very best teaching, the very best learning experiences, and that those mirror the schools that are excellent and sending their kids to the colleges we want our kids to go to.”

TAPCo’s students seem to relish the challenge of high expectations.

Sapphire Roman, a 17-year-old senior, told The New York Post: “They’ve gotten more organized, more strict… They’re really buckling down on us, making quizzes harder, giving us harder books to read. I love ‘TAPCo’… It’s just a very good school, and it feels like family.”

So despite scant resources, and a shoestring budget, Principal Passarella and her team of dedicated teachers work their magic each day, giving their students a fair shot at life with a happy ending.

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