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Broker hedges his bets on a new Rockaway high school

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By ALEC JOHNSON

The Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability is scheduled to utilize classrooms on the third floor of this building in September. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

Chris Barriteau was firmly ensconced in a lucrative Wall Street career as an investment manager when the economy collapsed in 2008. For 16 years, he calculated risks and worked between the wall and the wallpaper. He was a broker. He managed the deals between two people–one selling, one buying, as all three of them tried to make money, big money. When he calculated his risks correctly, he usually scored.

But then, Wall Street melted down and thousands were told to pack their careers in a cardboard box and not to return to their desk the following morning. “Nobody saw this coming,” he said. “We had doubled down on get rich schemes.”

Barriteau did not get fired in the maelstrom. He had a job, and a very good one at that, as vice president of a hedge fund trading company. The crash, however, caused Barriteau to reassess his values and look beyond Wall Street. Barriteau began seeing the business he was in as one that created cash, but no value.

“Everyone wanted to get rich quick,” said Barriteau of his colleagues. “And folks weren’t developing skills to design, create and build.”

By Barriteau’s calculus, the failed get-rich schemes of the Street’s fast traders had their corollary to the lives of some of the city’s most underprivileged kids. From Morrisania in the South Bronx to East New York in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens, Barriteau believed that some kids, for some reason, did not want to learn. Too many were not graduating from high school, which put them at greater risk for ending up in jail. The trajectory that began with bad schools and ended in jails even included trading prisoners across state lines to fill prison cells. “If Texas had open beds a middle man would call Louisiana,” he said. “Prisoners were becoming a commodity.”

As a risk calculator by nature, Barriteau researched urban education and concluded that if the high school graduation rate continues to be poor, the results will be disastrous. “Wall Street is always looking forward to what is going to happen,” he said. “If we allow this trend to continue with so many normal kids flunking out of school… I am looking at a catastrophe down the road where there is panic mode and a need for drastic action. Why wait for that to happen?”

Like many other fellow hedge fund managers, Barriteau turned towards funding education as a way of tackling this newly discovered issue. In November 2008, he quit his hedge fund job and a month later founded The Artisan School Center, a non-profit organization focused on creating new schools where kids would want to learn. He had had enough of the brokerage business. The schools would be hands on, and in the sense of the artisan times of ancient Europe, students would be taught a trade.

The chancellor’s pledge last January to close down 19 failing city schools and replace them with a series of new small schools opened the door for Barriteau. The city needed more than 19 schools to replace them, and Barriteau, who is a soft spoken and sharply dressed African-American man, was on hand with deep pockets, lots of ideas, and a desire to work with their needs to provide a new public school.

Although the decision to close the schools is now mired in legal limbo, ever since a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled in March that the city did not follow proper procedures. Scores of teachers, principals and future students’ futures hang in the balance.

A short walk to Rockaway Beach, students at the new "sustainability" school may study this ecosystem during science class. (Photo by Alec Johnson)

But there is at least one small school in Queens that is pressing forward. It is the school that Barriteau helped create, The Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability, the new name for The Artisan School. Plans are in place to open the school on September 8, taking over about six classrooms on the third floor of Beach Channel High School, a Rockaway school slated for closure. Citing three years of poor progress reports, the education department announced in December that Beach Channel would phase out and close for good in June 2013.

“We still have space and we are still opening,” said Jennifer Connolly, the new Sustainability school’s principal. “We are moving forward.”

This new school is one of 32 public district schools approved by the education department over the past year to replace failing larger comprehensive schools, 16 of which are high schools. They represent just one-third of proposals pitched by teachers, principals and individuals interested in opening their own schools. In the time since Mayor Michael Bloomberg was granted control of the city’s schools, 338 new schools have opened.

In the fall, 108 ninth graders will enter as the school’s first class. Each year, thereafter, another class will be added so that in four years from now, Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability will serve ninth through twelfth graders. Students may choose one of two technical education areas to focus their studies–organic culinary arts or green carpentry–two fields its founders believe could lead to important careers after college.

By the third week in April, 40 students had signed up and Connolly believed she would have no trouble filling the other 68 positions in the coming weeks. For teachers, Connolly is currently reading applications. She has received 425 resumes to fill six teaching positions. “There is lots of interest,” she said.

On a recent Saturday morning, a handful of students and their parents vying for an opportunity to attend the environmental school spoke with Connolly at an information session in Beach Channel’s auditorium. Raquan Jean, 14, an eighth grade student at MS 43 in Rockaway Beach and his mother, April Ankum, attended.

Jean, who wants to be a judge someday, was intrigued by the school’s focus on the environment. But he was even more interested in being at the top of the food chain as a freshman. “Usually when you start High School you are the youngest,” Connolly said. “Here you’re the oldest. You are going to be shaping the school.”

The small school will also partner with Beach Channel High School for sports teams so students, like Jean, can have the personalized aspect of a small school with the amenities of a large school. Jean wants to play football. “It’s the best of both worlds,” said Connolly.

Jean was sold. He hopes he can start in the fall, the only drawback he thought was the uniform, navy dress pants, a white button down shirt and clip-on tie. “What happens if I don’t wear the uniform?”

“You will get a warning, then you might get sent home,” Connolly, 31, a petite, friendly but stern young principal said with a smile.

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” said Jean’s mother who told Connolly to call her on her cell next year if her son creates any problems. Liking what they saw, they left hoping Jean would be able to attend. “I think this [school] is good for the kids.”

The path to creating this new school began when Barriteau, 41, walked away from his Wall Street career and formed the The Artisan School Center, an independent non-profit organization to design skills-based academic programs to improve the education of students in New York City public schools.

Barriteau teamed up with Howard Rosenberg, 55, who left a career of business management consulting for Fortune 500 companies. The goal, Barriteau said, “was to provide our students with multiple pathways of success, having the opportunities to pursue higher education while simultaneously learning a meaningful living.”

Although the two men had little experience in education, they believed it was imperative to try to help revamp the educational landscape of the city and give students better schools that would change the trajectory of their lives. “When I heard there were more African American kids in the state of Alabama in jail than in college,” Barriteau said he realized intervention was imperative. He chose New York, because he lives in Brooklyn and because he sees tremendous potential in changing the city’s public schools.

Barriteau, whose background is in economics, refused to follow the trend practiced by most Wall Street traders who became involved in education. Many have chosen recently to back charter schools, which are privately run public schools, funded by both tax payer dollars and private donations. It’s hard to tell how many charter schools in the city have been financed in part by hedge fund managers, but the numbers are growing.

The Robin Hood Foundation, a charity with strong Wall Street backing that supports charter schools and other poverty programs, raised a surprising $88 million at a one-night fundraiser in mid-May.  Last year, it spent $23.9 Million of its annual giving budget on charter schools and educational programs. According to Bloomberg News, more than half of its $150 million in donations comes from investment banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds.  (To read more about Robin Hood and Wall Street Click Here)

“Charter schools are great,” Barriteau said. “But a big part of their budget doesn’t necessarily go to education. It goes to real estate and overhead. Money is taken away from teachers and classroom resources.”

Barriteau envisioned a school where students could learn a trade, much like an artisan would in ancient Europe. They researched schools and the high drop out rates for urban schools and concluded that Career & Technical Education (CTE) schools, which teach more with activity and project-based learning as opposed to traditional classroom teaching, are more successful.

This new school is one of two CTE schools opening in 2010. The second is the Academy for Health Careers, which is scheduled to open in Brooklyn. According to the education department Web site there are 30 designated CTE schools in the city. Barriteau believes that a school that emphasizes creativity, design and craftsmanship is critical to motivating students to be goal oriented. He said, “We want to engage kids in the classroom to both learn basic academics as well as skills to survive and thrive in the 21st century.”

They chose “sustainability” as a theme because the school is constantly changing and evolving, allowing for a curriculum tailored to society’s changing needs. Rosenberg said, “Sustainability is a way of thinking as much as it is about the technology. It is about changing the systems of thinking and not just about changing disposable cups into recyclable cups.”

The official process to open a new school for 2010 began with an April 2009 informational fair attended by more than 100 people aspiring to start their own schools. To get started, Barriteau submitted an abstract of his general idea for The Artisan School. A few months later a full proposal including curriculum and how the school fits in with the district needs was submitted. Barriteau’s was one of 110 full proposals. According to an education department official from the new school’s team, 70 of “the best developed proposals” were advanced to the interview stage. From there, 32 were approved, and for a reason not disclosed, the name “The Artisan School,” was not approved and Barriteau’s school was renamed the Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability.

Early in the process they chose Connolly to be the school’s leader. Connolly is a third generation Rockaway native, and former middle school math teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal. She is currently working on creating a rigorous curriculum and meeting with members of the community she hopes will form partnerships with the school. The partners will provide internships for students and bring the community and the school together. Despite the controversy over closing the Beach Channel, which has been a large comprehensive high school in the neighborhood for years, Connolly said the community has been supportive. “People have been pretty positive.”

Science classes will be taught in real life situations, like the ecosystem of Rockaway Beach where students will be able to study biology and learn how to test water for contaminants. “We want to bring curriculum to life instead of it being flat in a book,” said Rosenberg.

Trips down to the water, that Connolly calls “learning voyages” will expand further from just science. She said they will bring the water samples back to the lab, test them for contaminants and then write about the findings in English language arts class, give a presentation in technology class about why the water is contaminated and what can be done to clean it up. The final stage will require students to report their findings to the community.

In the coming years, Connolly plans on expanding the school’s community outreach and eventually she hopes the culinary arts students will be able to create an organic garden and catering service that Rockaway Beach residents can purchase and learn from.

Even before the Sustainability school opens, Barriteau has his sites already trained on opening another school the year after. Barriteau has no intention of working in the school. “I’m simply the guy working with the school to try to make sure we do our best job possible,” he said, “to make sure kids are excited to come to school and really want to learn.”

The Wall Street broker, who once traded only in dollars, would not put a dollar amount on his investment. But he did pledge to remain committed for years to come. “I have put my entire life’s savings into this,” he said. “That’s in light of me losing my portfolio.”

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  1. Francois Belizaire says:

    Congratulations, Chris! The world needs more intelligent, positive, and forward-thinking individuals like yourself to make the world a better place.
    Keep up the good work, my friend!

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