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Cultivating a Culture of Opportunity for All Students

March 15, 2022
Graham Browne
At Forte Preparatory Academy in Queens, students discover pathways to individual and collective success

When I think about what makes a great school, I find inspiration in the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu.

Popularized by Bishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu translates roughly to "humanity" and expresses the belief that a person becomes a person through other persons.

Put another away, Ubuntu says that I cannot be truly excellent unless everyone else in my community is excellent. Our humanity, our self-worth and our dignity are all intertwined.

Graham Browne is the founder and executive director of Forte Preparatory Academy in Queens, New York.

This is the ideal we try to embody at Forte Preparatory Academy, the charter school I founded with a small group of passionate educators in Queens, New York. In a world where personal success is often prized above all, I wanted to build a school community that prioritized the success of the collective at the same level as the success of an individual.

Forte Prep serves a community of 360 middle school students in the most diverse neighborhood in New York’s most diverse borough, a community of immigrants where you can hear conversations in more than 160 languages.

We are building a school environment where each student feels like they belong, where they feel safe and can thrive.

Our mission is simple: To prepare every student for success in any high school they choose, including the most challenging and competitive in New York City. We are building a school environment where each student feels like they belong, where they feel safe and can thrive. We want our students to see their own success through making other students successful.

Every school should pursue these goals. But this work is extremely hard and the truth is too many elementary and middle schools are failing their students – failing to build a foundation for their academic success, failing to instill confidence in their abilities and failing to create an expectation that they can excel.

Graham Browne's goal is to prepare Forte Prep's middle school students for admission to New York's most competitive and challenging high schools.

Unfortunately, the students from low-income and immigrant neighborhoods often suffer most.

There’s a culture of opportunity that often evades immigrant communities. The students are more than capable, their parents and families more than willing, but they may lack access to the tools needed to navigate through and succeed in high school and beyond.

I know this from my own experience.

I was born in New York, but grew up in New Jersey. My mom is from Jamaica, my dad from St. Vincent. We lived in a working-class neighborhood outside of Newark. I had a really positive upbringing. But the high school in our community ranked near the bottom of all high schools in the state – a place parents wouldn’t necessarily choose for their child.

Forte Prep is located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City, where more than 160 languages are spoken.

When I was in middle school, my mom came across an advertisement for a scholarship program in Newark that prepared students to apply for boarding schools on the East Coast.

Through that program, I earned entry to St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. That shifted the entire trajectory of my life and career.

I remember meeting with my eighth-grade guidance counselor in Newark after I was accepted to boarding school. She bristled at the notion, assuming the school would be too challenging and that I wouldn’t fit in. There was no encouragement. Her vision for a student’s future was small, not big or expansive.

"When our students leave for high school, I want them to believe, without question, that their next step is to become a leader," says Graham Browne.

At St. Paul’s, the opposite was true. It was just assumed students would become the best and brightest (for better or for worse). They were told that they could do anything they wanted. That attitude was evident in the resources we were provided, in the work we were asked to produce, the lectures we heard.

None of the students at St. Paul’s were necessarily any different or better than the students I grew up with, but the culture of the school was infused with support and encouragement.

For too many children in our country today, demography determines destiny.

That’s when I realized the system was broken – riddled with structural inequities that prevent children from being able to realize the most out of their lives.

For too many children in our country today, demography determines destiny. I shouldn't have had to move 250 miles away from home just to gain access to the type of opportunity I had at St. Paul’s. I shouldn't have had to leave my family and community behind. Opportunity should have been built into the schools where I lived.

Graham Browne meets with Forte Prep staff. More than half of the staff at the school identify as BIPOC.

I knew I wanted to change that. As an educator, one of the things that drew me to Queens was the common experience I share with students who are first-generation Americans or recent immigrants. Our kids largely hail from Latin American countries, but we have students of West African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian descent as well.

I saw a chance to help families navigate the education system and provide options and pathways for students – to build their academic confidence and build bridges from middle school to high school that would put them on track for college and a lifetime of opportunity.

When our students leave for high school, I want them to be believe, without question, that their next step is to become a leader.

At Forte Prep, we focus on excellence in literacy and math. We increase the amount of time students spend on both those subjects from the moment they arrive in fifth grade. Our students also receive arts instruction and digital literacy on a regular basis.

We designed our curriculum to expose students to different careers and professions. We bring diverse speakers who reflect the identity of our student population and reinforce the idea that they can do anything, or be anything, they want. The novels we study in class feature diverse protagonists and culturally affirming themes.

Forte Preparatory Academy founder Graham Browne and the school's founding principal, Justin Smith, visit a classroom.

We work hard to identify enrichment programs that cater to the interests of our students. We strive to be collaborative with families so they know every possible opportunity available for their child. Our Director of High School Placement helps students apply for competitive schools and secure financial aid if they need it. Most importantly, we stress community by emphasizing teamwork, listening and collective goal setting so students build deep, empathetic relationships with their peers.

When our students leave for high school, I want them to believe, without question, that their next step is to become a leader. I want them to know we will always be there – cheering on their success.

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