Benjamin Cardozo High School

Some see large, urban high schools as impersonal. But Cardozo High in Queens is an exception. The principal, faculty, and even the students there are serious about the school mission: "A School of Excellence AND a School with a Heart." Even so, some students struggle to find their niche.

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Cardozo serves students with a wide array of academic needs and abilities.

There is no shortage of praise for Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens. The New York Times calls Cardozo “one of the city’s most prestigious and competitive schools.” Newsweek recognizes Cardozo as one of the “top 100 schools in the nation.” Cardozo students rank high on nearly all academic measures, including Regents diplomas, AP exams, SAT scores, and graduation rates.

And, yet, hundreds of Cardozo students struggle each year to find their place and to earn enough credits for graduation. Principal Rick Hallman has worked with Assistant Principal Sheila Clark and the rest of the faculty to understand why junior high students entering Cardozo lost the urge to succeed in school They have employed both data collection and personal touches to create a learning community of the heart and of the mind.

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Some Cardozo students need help tapping into their potential.

Principal Hallman and his staff began by asking sociological questions: Why are these students skipping classes and being truant? What is happening in students’ lives that stops them from achieving academically? School leaders’ frustrations might easily have led them to adopt rigorous disciplinary solutions. Instead, they have tried to understand why students behave in self-defeating ways in the short term, only to find themselves over-age and under-credited in the long term. Hallman and his colleagues have concluded that to do so teachers must seek the reasons from students.

To almost no one’s surprise, teachers have found that these students want to succeed academically, but are faced with issues in their lives that simply but surely overwhelm them. Confronted by this reality, Cardozo leaders have acted decisively by placing students in small learning environments and by creating the focus and momentum necessary for academic success. A student’s past academic failure has become a ticket to a second chance.

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Cardozo faculty members hold high expectations.

Years ago, Mr. Hallman left his job as a surveyor for a career in education. His calm, quiet leadership style emphasizes a strong sense of putting in place the necessary structures and resources to allow his staff to be creative in their teaching and guidance of students. As in most public schools, there is an issue of how far both human and financial capital can be stretched. Hallman knows full well that resources should not always be defined in monetary terms. Consequently the Growth Program makes the most of the energy and connectivity of humans helping each other in order to maximize its influence.

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Cardozo’s dance program provides a creative outlet for many.

Collective attention on data and accountability is important, but such attention can obscure an individual student’s success. The Cardozo Growth Program provides a setting in which each student can construct his or her own success story. Tamel has found himself in the Cardozo dance program. Ryan has learned how to fight in appropriate ways for what he wants. Catherine and Michelle have discovered the community and peer support they need to do well in their studies. A successful school is defined in no small measure by the support it provides and by the community in which it is embedded. Good schools encourage students not to fear learning and to take calculated chances to advance their knowledge.

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These students understand how the Growth Program has helped them get back on track.

Mr. Hallman helps teachers do their jobs by allowing them to be human – to care for students and to give them positive reinforcement. Teachers consciously value their abilities to “come down to the level of the students” in order to encourage students to exert the effort necessary to set their own goals. The principal and teachers chant a mantra that is simple but powerful: “Don’t give up on the students, and they won’t give up on themselves.”

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Hallman considers next steps for Cardozo’s students.

Education is about ensuring that all students realize they have the potential to achieve positive results in their own lives – to be winners at whatever they choose to do. Growth Program students know that setbacks in their lives are only temporary—they must work hard to excel if they are to realize their dreams. The Growth Program provides the students with realistic expectations and with the personal tools that to move beyond past failures toward future opportunities. The Cardozo faculty face these challenges with limited resources, making a difference, one student at a time.