In New York City, a public charter school network that I have the honor of co-leading recently opened an unusually beautiful new campus in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. It’s located in a 200,000-square foot, century-old former icehouse meticulously brought back to life after decades of abandonment. The New York Times recently called DREAM Charter School at 20 Bruckner Boulevard “one of the most spectacular school buildings in the city.” It’s not the type of school you’d usually see this far uptown, and it required a significant investment of money and time from our organization.
In a community and a field of work where resources are scarce, time is so dear, and utility trumps aspiration at almost every turn, I’m repeatedly asked the same questions about our newest campus. Why 20 Bruckner? Why a capital project of this scale? And not for a mall or stadium or luxury housing—but for a school?
Here’s our why. At DREAM, we believe that place matters. Place creates context, and context creates meaning—and the meaning of a beautiful school, for students, families, and our community is that they matter. They are worthy of our investment of love and time and, yes, they are worthy of the dollars it took to rebuild this amazing space.
Beautiful learning spaces are common in affluent communities. Just 40 blocks south of Bruckner Boulevard, no one really questions the cost of a school. No one asks “Why?” about Dalton or Nightingale-Bamford or Collegiate.
But if we can agree that all children—no matter their zip code—need the same things to grow up healthy, strong, and happy, the next question is inevitable: How do we afford it?
DREAM has always been more resource-intensive than most of its peer public schools. That’s because we don’t just serve families during the school day: our schools are also built to house afterschool and summer programming in service of DREAM’s extended-day, extended-year approach for every child. 20 Bruckner is even the home base of DREAM’s alumni programming, which serves our high school graduates for up to 6 years, to and through college and into their first job. And since there is enormous inefficiency in having the City’s suite of public services operating in silos, DREAM creates places where a family can get a meal, meet with a counselor or a case manager, and access childcare in the form of afterschool programming, all under one roof.
Today, it is private philanthropy in combination with significant public funding that allows DREAM to build this constellation of supports in one place. And we’re unapologetic about that, because the reality is that public dollars alone do not cover the cost of what low-income Black and brown kids need and deserve. If our students are going to excel, it’s not simply because of our idealism, but because of our effort and our inputs. It turns out investment does drive outcomes, like DREAM’s strong test results or college attainment—especially when you compare the public cost of a good outcome now versus a bad one like unemployment, homelessness, or prison later in a student’s life. DREAM’s thesis is that if we invest at the right scale now, we won’t have to invest at the wrong scale later.
In this work, we have to ask ourselves Why? and How? every single day. The work is harder than ever, and it can be easy to lose track of why you started. But since we cut the ribbon at 20 Bruckner, as we’ve watched our students and staff inhabit their new home with so much joy and pride and wonder, our Why feels like it is more of a living and breathing thing than ever before.
Our students remind us that the point is not that 20 Bruckner is out of scale—but rather, that 20 Bruckner is one of the few things in Mott Haven where investment and commitment and belief is right-sized. Imagine if we could help make this the norm and expectation, to affirm that place matters, for more of our children across our city and country. Imagine if policy and public dollars assumed the true cost of equity. What a difference that would make.