dreamBronx’s middle school program invests in students’ futures

Derek Smith, director of dreamBronx,, with middle schoolers at A House on Beekman. Photo: Allyson Escobar

Eligible students can participate in educational summer camp free

Jason Santiago, a seventh grader at St. Luke’s School, reads aloud from the “Dreamer’s Affirmation” on banners hanging in an office-sized room on E. 139th Street.

“I am a dreamer,” Santiago, 11, recites with 15 other students in the room. “I am wonderfully and beautifully made. I am a steward of my privilege.”

The office serves as headquarters for a new afterschool program that emphasizes fellowship, scholarship and service. Launched this summer, dreamBronx is geared for middle schoolers as part of the faith-based, educational non-profit  A House on Beekman (AHOB), serving families in Mott Haven.

According to Afterschool Alliance, 74 percent of New York parents believe afterschool programming helps them keep their jobs, and reduces the likelihood of children engaging in “risky” behavior. Two out of every three parents say that afterschool excites their kids about learning.

Research also shows that among low-income and minority families, children enrolled in afterschool have better “academics, school-day attendance, engagement in learning, and behavior.”

Executive director Sara Miller started the program in 2011, noticing a pattern of continually low test-scores in school district 7. According to a New York Times performance index study, less than 30 percent of public school students in 6th through 8th grades were passing. 

 “AHOB was born out of the community’s needs for long-term change. I saw the daily injustices of a flawed education system,” Miller, 30, said. “Moms dreaming about their babies graduating college, starting their careers. It can be hard to thrive when many students feel behind, trapped in the cycle of poverty. There’s this constant feeling of not being enough—it makes it harder for kids to focus.”

The program serves youth from birth to teens with holistic, free educational programming, aimed for families that live within a six-block radius, between East 138th and 143rd Sts.

The non-profit is privately funded, with endowments from Hope for New York and the Women’s Bible Society.

Seanette Gwin, a “leader” at the Mott Haven site, said programming for teens and pre-teen is urgently is a big need in the neighborhood, and books are key. Staff and the children discuss tough topics such as poverty, underage drinking and mental health.

“I tell students it’s okay to be dealing with an issue. Look how these characters overcame it,” said Gwin, 26. “We don’t choose our deck of cards, but they’ve been dealt. How are you going to play your hand?”

“Family meetings” allow the group to bring up personal issues and hold each other accountable.

“We talk about tolerance and setting goals. Everyone here deals with challenges, so it’s cool we can express ourselves without being judged,” said sixth grader Steven Ovales, 11.

Christina Santiago, 31, said that for her son, Jason, joining dreamBronx last summer helped her recognize—and later diagnose—signs of his dyslexia.

“As a single mom, I was over-sheltering him. I would have never known before. His school is aware of it, and it’s really important because [they accommodate] his learning disability,” said Santiago. “He cares about school more now. It’s been a blessing.”

Jason is enrolled in AHOB’s new 5-week summer camp programs, which started in June and have fundraised to include more students this year.

“Because my teacher took the time to invest in and believe in me,” said Jason Santiago. “It’s like this moment now, when I see a student struggling, I’m able to say, I see something in you. I believe in you too.”