New school on a South Bronx block: DREAM Charter School unveils K-12 campus expansion in Mott Haven

Ribbon Cutting Formal (1)
Ribbon-cutting ceremony at DREAM Charter School in Mott Haven on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Photo taken by Jordan Rathkopf for DREAM.

A massive red bow decorated 20 Bruckner Blvd. in the Bronx on Jan. 19 to celebrate the next life of what once was the Ruppert Ice House: a brand new charter school for DREAM students. 

Constructed on a $50 million loan with the capacity to serve 1,300 elementary, middle, and high school charter students, the six-story campus includes a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a STEM quad with laboratories, an art wing and library space, two cafeterias, and a rooftop yard for outdoor classes and garden. Each school will be housed on a separate floor.

The campus will soon house Mott Haven pre-kindergarten students up to 8th graders starting next fall. The building will also offer post-secondary services to its growing alumni community — of whom half are first-generation college students.

The DREAM Charter School, founded in 1991 and formerly known as Harlem RBI, envisions a four-pillared “whole child” model of rigorous academics, commitment to social-emotional learning, cultivation of children’s mental and physical wellness, and a commitment to an engagement of family and community, said Co-CEO Eve Colavito.

DREAM Charter School Co-CEO Eve Colavito speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Mott Haven campus on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Photo by Sarah Belle Lin.

The other DREAM Charter schools include: a Pre-K, elementary, and middle school in East Harlem, and in the Bronx, an elementary school in Highbridge, as well as an elementary, middle, and high school in Mott Haven. There are roughly 2,000 students — 99 percent are students of color —spread out across its campuses. 

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony held Thursday morning, Assemblymember Amanda Septimo, who grew up in Hunts Point, pointed to the moment at hand: that a building of this caliber was built for students in the South Bronx, saying that she knows that the South Bronx community is full of neighbors who will look out and and teachers who stay late every day, to make sure the youth see that they have people who are willing to invest in them.

“That is the story of the South Bronx but unfortunately, that is not the story of the South Bronx that gets told,” Septimo said. “This building and the mission of DREAM is changing that story every day.”

The 188,000-square-foot building, housed at the former Ruppert Ice House that was vacant for over two decades, is now a learning institution designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who led the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, among others.

Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson described the school as a beacon of hope that provides New York City youth an opportunity to rise above challenging circumstances and environments:

“I want you to imagine all of our children and educators and our principals that are working hard every day so fulfill the dream of our young people to make sure that they understand that no matter where they come from, whether it’s El Barrio or the South Bronx or any other part of our city, that our scholars are destined for great success. We must remind our young people in all the work we do that their block and their zip code should never deny their destiny.”

Kanye Hargrove, a DREAM senior, took on the challenge of three advanced placement courses in research, literature, and global studies. 

“One of the ways I’ve overcome those challenges is just getting along with my teachers,” Hargrove said. “I felt like having a better relationship with my teachers, because when I did, my teachers pointed out the good things in me, which made other students gravitate to me more. I’ve been answering a lot of questions in class and having good thoughts about certain subjects and topics that are going on in class. And being a good debater.”

Hargrove plans on studying business analytics in college. His advice to incoming DREAM students? Don’t always follow the crowd. Never let a person peer pressure you. And of course, build close relationships with your teachers. 

There are currently 142,500 charter school students — comprising 15 percent of all NYC public school students — across over 270 character schools — most are based in the Bronx. Four new Bronx charter schools were announced last year to open. The borough has 94 charter schools, just four more than Brooklyn. Manhattan has 56 charters, Queens has 27, and Staten Island has 8, according to the New York City Charter School Center. A majority of charter school students are considered economically disadvantaged. 

The DREAM Charter School’s accountability status is currently listed in “good standing” as of the 2020-21 school year, by the New York State Education Department. For the 2021-22 school year, 52% of third through eighth-grade students tested proficient in standardized English-language arts, and 54% of 7th-grade students tested proficient in standardized math, according to the NYSED.

Before each school year, DREAM principals and staff visit families as part of the admission process. Parents of DREAM students are their child’s first teacher, and also the school’s partners in that work, said Colavito.

“Every summer, all of our staff: teachers and support staff, principals and office staff, spend two full days going out in the community to our families’ homes,” Colavito said. “We believe that the first meeting you have should be on the family’s terms. They are there to learn about the child and the family and what they think their child needs. It creates this immediate relationship.”

The school offers “multiple touch points” throughout the rest of the students’ DREAM careers: parent-teacher conferences, family workshops to discuss homework, middle to high school transitioning, free legal services, free dental clinics for students, as well as food resources and other emergency assistance. 

The new library was unveiled with the rest of campus at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at DREAM Charter School in Mott Haven on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Photo by Sarah Belle Lin.

Brandon Taylor, who has been with DREAM for six years and is in his first year as a high school principal, told the audience that the school has inspired him to dream big. 

“I know that this space will inspire our young people to do the same,” Taylor said. “We have worked to build the best charter high school building in the country, I believe. I’d like to move on to build the best charter school in the country.”

Sebastian Gregory, a DREAM junior, has been with DREAM since kindergarten. His favorite class is chemistry, where he can be hands on with experiments. Gregory said he’s been coding since he was six years old with his brother. Now, he plans on pursuing game design or web security after graduating. His advice to future DREAM students: “Pay attention to your work. If you don’t pay attention, you will miss out a lot. If you allow yourself to learn, you will do it.”

DREAM classes currently have a 12:1 student teacher ratio, according to the school’s website. Students are asked to “assemble a portfolio of college-level performance assessments” which they will then present as a capstone to demonstrate college preparedness, according to the school. The Dream Charter High School has a 99% college acceptance rate, per DREAM statistics. 

DREAM students guaranteed a spot in the free after school and summer programming to keep students engaged all day. The programming provides academic support, social-emotional learning, sports, and youth employment opportunities. 

For students with IEP and special needs, the school offers integrated co-teaching model with two teachers in every classroom, onsite counseling, speech language therapy, physical therapy, hearing support services, occupational therapy, and paraprofessional services.

Students are selected through a lottery process which is free to apply for. DREAM Charter School is currently enrolling students for its three East Harlem and Bronx schools. The deadline to apply for the lottery is April 1, but DREAM accepts applications on a rolling, year-round basis.

“When our high school students entered this building, they were crammed into smaller, tight spaces that that don’t match the aspirations that they have for themselves,” Colavito said. “I do think place matters; where you go to school every day. The physical manifestation of what you want for your life is important and says something to you about what is possible and what you deserve.”

DREAM Charter School building in Mott Haven.Photo by Sarah Belle Lin.