By Ricardo Arroyo
Why would a family in the Bronx send their kids to elementary school in Harlem? Before I learned about Democracy Prep schools, I would have wondered too. Starting my sons at Harlem Prep Elementary was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The public schools I attended as a kid weren’t a good environment for me. When my older son Sebastian was in PreK, I got worried about finding a school where he would be safe and happy. I applied to several schools, and Harlem Prep Elementary was one that had a seat available. When I visited the school, I knew I’d found the right place. Even in the Kindergarten classroom, I could see the enrichment and how nurturing the staff were. The principal, Ms. Perez, and the staff were so cordial and welcoming. I signed Sebastian up without hesitation. Four years later, it was a no-brainer to enroll his brother Gabriel.
Even though we live in the Bronx, Harlem Prep made everything convenient. I could take the boys to school on the train on my way to work, and the school also offers transportation. The afterschool program runs until 5:45 PM, so I could pick up my sons after work instead of leaving them waiting for hours. That support for working parents is why we kept going back and forth to Harlem Prep.
The teachers at Harlem Prep were fantastic–disciplined but kind. Sebastian and Gabriel grew very attached to Mr. Duran, the music teacher. He’s the reason that my kids got into music, which they still pursue to this day. He provided them with keyboards to practice on, and taught them how to listen to music with an educated ear. It’s helped them bond with me over our shared love of all kinds of music, from classical to jazz to salsa and merengue. (Sometimes they make fun of my favorite ‘80s hits, and I tell them that’s what their favorite hip-hop artists are sampling now.) And it helps them stay in touch with their Latino roots. My family is Puerto Rican and their mom’s family is Dominican, so they have rich musical traditions to connect with.
Democracy Prep is also teaching students how to use their voice for good. The school has organized voter registration drives, where the boys and their classmates go around the community with yellow shirts that say “I Can’t Vote But You Can.” My son’s shared how excited they were when someone signs up to vote on their clipboards. The experience has shaped their values. Gabriel talks about using his love of science and math to help eliminate global poverty.
It’s been a decade since we first set foot at Democracy Prep. Both my boys are back in the Bronx: Sebastian is a sophomore at Bronx Prep High School, and Gabriel is in sixth grade at Bronx Prep Middle School. Gabriel is still playing piano, and Sebastian has started learning jazz saxophone. I am proud of the young people they have become.
It really takes a village to raise a child. Democracy Prep’s schools are a pivotal part of our family’s village. I just can’t emphasize enough what a great experience my sons have had over the past 10 years. If someone asks whether they should send their child to Democracy Prep, my only answer is: what are you waiting for?