By Rebecca Beyer
When Graham Browne ’15 was in the 8th grade, he told his guidance counselor that he would not be going to the local public high school—one of the lowest-performing schools in New Jersey—because he had received a scholarship to a prestigious college-preparatory boarding school in New Hampshire.
The counselor did not offer her congratulations. Instead, she said the school was for “snooty rich kids.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re back here in a year,” she said.
“That was really hard,” recalls Browne, who at the time was already anxious about how he would fare so far from home and in a place known for its academically rigorous environment. “Especially for me, one of the very few students in the honors program who was a student of color. She was wired not to believe in me based on what she had seen and what she expected of students who looked like me.”
But he needn’t have worried. Browne spent four years at St. Paul’s School, drawing inspiration from his coursework and soaking in visits from people like Yo-Yo Ma, who taught a master class in cello, and John Kerry, an alumnus who stopped by during the 2004 presidential campaign. After leaving St. Paul’s, Browne went on to attend Brown University.
“I just remember being so excited and inspired, but also, in the back of my head, thinking how many people I knew who would have done so much with an opportunity like this,” he says. “I could name you 100 students who were just as smart as I was or more talented, but I was one of the only—if not the only—students [from my local school] to go to an Ivy League university. All they needed was someone to pin a star on a map, and they would have gone for it. They didn’t benefit from having that star placed high enough.”
Browne never stopped thinking about those students, or that guidance counselor, as he got his degree in urban studies at Brown, taught at P.S. 20 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan while studying at the Bank Street School of Education, worked in education policy at the social-impact consulting nonprofit The Bridgespan Group, completed his MBA at Yale SOM, and spent a year as a fellow at Building Excellent Schools, which trains people to run urban college-preparatory schools.
Those students are still at the forefront of his thinking, especially since he launched Forte Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free middle school in Queens, New York.
At St. Paul’s, “the students weren’t necessarily smarter than anyone I’d met, but the way people talked about what we were supposed to do and achieve was so fundamentally different,” Browne says. “That sort of expectation setting—be the best and the brightest, the next generation of the world’s leaders—is something I still think about today.”
When he was growing up, Browne thought the two ways he could make a difference in public education were by becoming a teacher or a philanthropist. But, after he worked on school policy issues—including, as a consultant, on major reforms in Jacksonville, Florida—he realized he wanted to shoulder more of the responsibility on his own.
“So much of what we do in public education relies on mission-driven leaders who really understand from start to finish how their ideas can impact the populations they’re trying to serve and have the technical skills to lead an organization to that end,” he says. “Those people are sort of few and far between. Where they exist, it’s great, and, where they don’t—even if the ideas are the same—the execution is dramatically different.”
To become such a leader, Browne chose the Yale School of Management. When he visited, he was struck that faculty members at a business school were interested to hear that he wanted to pursue a career in education. “People would be open to asking follow-up questions or offer a tidbit of knowledge or say, ‘I worked in this space’ or ‘I was in education for a while.’ They saw value in doing this work.”
At Yale SOM, Browne met other students who shared his interest in education and had found their way to New Haven; in his second year, he helped run the Yale Education Leadership Conference, a leading industry event. But he also absorbed a variety of lessons from students with other career interests. “It’s amazing to be in a classroom of 70 to 80 students who are all thinking about an issue in completely different ways,” he said in an interview at the time. “It has broadened my perspective across all sectors and revealed in a much deeper way what it means to be an effective leader in any one particular context.”
After graduation, instead of joining an existing school or school system, Browne decided to start his own institution. He was lucky to have the opportunities he had, he says. His mother found out about the scholarship he received to attend St. Paul’s—from the Wight Foundation—because she saw a flyer about the application process come through a fax machine at her place of work. Without that moment of serendipity, his parents would never have been able to afford to send him to an out-of-state private school.
In his current role, Browne hopes to eliminate luck from the equation. Forte Prep, a charter school within the New York City Department of Education, accepts students regardless of their race, ethnicity, zip code, language, income level, or special needs.
“The system wasn’t set up for me and so many people like me just because of how much money our parents made,” he says. “I realized this type of opportunity doesn’t have to exist 250 miles away from home. It can exist in neighborhoods where it’s needed most, particularly for underserved populations such as students of color or immigrants.”
Forte Prep started with its first class of 5th graders in 2017 and is finishing its second year. By 2021, it will have a full cohort of 5th through 8th graders. Browne, who drafted the 500-page proposal for the school during his fellowship with Building Excellent Schools, is founder, executive director, dean of students, and chief operating officer. Oh, and musical director, sort of. On a recent Wednesday, a group of students interrupted a conversation he was having to continue a “secret meeting” they had started earlier. The subject? A surprise musical performance for a teacher who was soon to be married.
“You should go to recess,” Browne told the kids gently. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
According to the proposal for Forte Prep, the philosophy behind the school is that every student is college bound, “without a doubt.” English language arts, math, character education, performing arts, and digital literacy are emphasized, among other subject areas. The school day is extended—operating hours are 7:40 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.—and small-group tutoring is utilized to ensure success.
The classroom environment is inclusive. Browne saw firsthand the detrimental effects of isolating children with special needs: an older sister struggled with learning disabilities. A talented dancer, she spent most of her school days from the ages of 11 to 21 in a single room at her school. Today, she choreographs modern, ballet, and hip-hop dances but reads at an elementary-school level.
“I truly believe that so much of her potential was squandered,” Browne says. “The level of expectation they had for her wasn’t high enough to get her out of her comfort zone.”
At Forte Prep, Browne says, “all students are treated the same and given supports that are subtle and dignified. Growth and development go both ways. There is so much that students with special needs can teach their peers.”
The results so far are promising. At the start of the school’s first year, 23% of students were proficient in English language arts, and 25% were proficient in math. By the end of that year, those numbers had gone up to 46% and 62%, respectively. On the 2017-2018 state exams, Forte Prep students outperformed its peers throughout the state.
Browne says he regularly draws on the lessons he learned at Yale SOM, especially a course called Interpersonal Dynamics that he took with leadership expert Heidi Brooks. The class focuses on effective management, a major priority at Forte Prep, where faculty and staff members are diverse in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and previous career experience.
“If I hadn’t taken that class, I wouldn’t feel as confident in my ability to not only hire a diverse team but also be committed to helping maintain and grow and support it,” Browne says.
Browne hopes to make Forte Prep a place parents would choose over a scholarship to a prep school.
“I’m super proud and privileged and appreciative of my time at St. Paul’s, but, in some ways, this is a more powerful model,” he says. “I would come home for breaks, and nobody knew anything about my school. The sense of pride that students will have from this school will be so much more profound because it’s where they’re from.”
About a month after Browne launched Forte Prep, he ran into one of his students at the grocery store on a Sunday. The child was wearing a T-shirt with the school’s name on it, and, when he saw Browne, he turned to a friend and said, proudly, “That’s my principal.”
For Browne, the encounter was significant.
“It was a humbling moment to step back and realize that I’ve created a community institution,” he says. “This is going to have ripple effects for generations.”