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The day I first visited The James Baldwin School, I met Nia, a confident young woman whose path to a high school diploma was not what we might call “traditional.”

Like so many other Baldwin students and alumni, Nia found a home at this small transfer high school, which is built on the principles of project-based learning, restorative justice and student-teacher trust.

In fact, her attachment is so strong that she still drops by all the time, even though she graduated a few years ago.

Where does Nia’s fierce devotion to the school come from?

When I peeled back the layers, all signs pointed to the principal’s office.

Brady Smith, Baldwin’s principal co-director, grew up in Seattle and spent his early adulthood “playing music and pounding nails” — not exactly who you might have imagined in a leadership role at a second-chance high school for New York City youth.

It turns out, though, that Smith has a lot in common with the students he now serves.

After high school, Smith enrolled at the University of Washington.

While “trying to manage a full class load, and in a full-time job in a restaurant, and paying my rent,” Smith dropped out “about halfway through the second term.

Eventually, he decided to go back to college — this time at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which is an experimental school with interdisciplinary coursework.

Smith says at Baldwin there is a lot of discussion about “the purpose of education … we do engage in those conversations, and not every school does.”

Smith sees these conversations as a way forward. “I really encourage schools — and I think that’s a lesson learned — to talk about what school means, and what its purpose is,” he says.

The Season 3 finale of the Miseducation podcast introduces us to the man behind the turnaround stories, and helps us understand how the principles of Baldwin influence students like Nia even after graduation day.

In this final episode, we reflect on the unjust New York City school system and return to important questions we’ve been asking throughout this season.

Do transfer high schools like James Baldwin help students succeed? And how do they define success?

This story about helping students succeed in transfer high schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Education Trust. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Miriam Entin-Bell is a 2019 graduate of Bard High School Early College Queens.

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