ABC News Corona Virus Economic Impacts

Brooklyn school traumatized by coronavirus is now fighting for its survival

A charter school that serves at-risk kids needs more students before the fall.

Gardening is said to be a teacher of patience.

It takes time for flowers to push their way up through dirt that is not always conducive to growth.

For one 14-year-old in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, it is an exercise in optimism, an attempt to distract. Tomorrow, the dirt and flowers surrounding Zaire Robinson will be at his mother's grave site.

"She was unique, she was nice, and she's very forgiving, she's very respectful," Zaire told ABC News Live Anchor Linsey Davis. "She's very beautiful. And she's also very hardworking."

Essence Robinson's hard work was evident nine years ago when, with Zaire by her side, she was the first parent to enroll her child in what is now Ember Charter School in the heart of Bed-Stuy.

"No one had heard of us before ... and in walks Zaire and his mom," Ember Charter School founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din told ABC News. "Little Zaire ... there's no guarantee that he's going to get in. She's like, 'I really want him to go to the school, there are no schools around here with teachers who look like him.'"

Just one month before her baby boy's graduation from eighth grade, Essence passed away at home.

Zaire is the one who found her body.

"He found my niece," Zaire's great aunt, Iris, told ABC News. "He couldn't wake her up, you know, it was just the two of them at home at that time ... I can only imagine what was going through him, and then you think, you know, you still have to go and you have to finish school."

This report is part of “Pandemic – A Nation Divided,” ABC News' special coverage of the heightened racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Tune into "Nightline" for a three-day series starting tonight, 12 a.m. ET on ABC.

Ember Charter's website says their mission is to ignite, empower and transform people traditionally labeled "at-risk."

Now, officials say, the school itself could be at risk.

"The COVID-19 crisis has really laid on top of it just the gargantuan amount of trauma for our students," Kalam Id-Din said. "More than 50 people have died in our community, many of whom have died at home. So they're not even really being counted in those numbers. So for those students already dealing with the violence and the poverty, now they have to deal with great loss in their lives as well."

In Bed-Stuy, 51.1% of residents are at or near the poverty level, according to the latest numbers from New York City. Ember Charter, a "trauma responsive" school, serves young people and their families who are going through challenging times.

Of the 10 different trauma points identified in the Adverse Child Experience Survey -- ranging from domestic violence at home to parental incarceration to food insecurity -- the average student at Ember Charter is dealing with at least three.

The school's mission is to provide a safe space for students, but with the rise of COVID-19, "'we are impeded from achieving our mission," Kalam Id-Din said. The school's borough, Brooklyn, is the county with the most coronavirus deaths in the U.S. and is home to the zip code with the highest COVID-19 death rate in all of New York City.

No place in America has been hit harder by COVID-19 than New York -- but the pain has not been shared equally. According to the city's health department, while neighborhoods with higher concentrations of black and Latino residents living in housing projects, like the Marcy House in Bed-Stuy, suffered higher death rates, wealthier neighborhoods like Battery Park in Manhattan saw almost no deaths.

Just as race and income have become strong indicators of who survives and who succumbs to the coronavirus, race and income are also significant factors in who will thrive academically. Prior to the pandemic, the achievement gap between low-income and other children was already equivalent to roughly two years of schooling, according to an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute using test score data from the government.

A new congressionally mandated report out this week from the Department of Education largely found that the achievement gap in America between white and black students has not changed in nearly 30 years.

Tellingly, the report says 10% of all black families do not have access to the internet -- connectivity that has been critical during the coronavirus crisis.

"It has become increasingly important for students of all ages to be able to access and use the Internet for learning. This topic became especially salient as schools moved to remote learning in response to COVID-19 concerns at the start of 2020," says the report's executive summary.

Kalam Id-Din says Ember Charter, along with other charter schools in New York City, were not included in the city's technology giveaway. He estimates that up to 45% of his students can't get online at home.

Zaire is fortunate: He has access to the internet and is able to continue classes online.

Ember Charter School is celebrated as a success. Its test scores have increased nearly every year since it opened. It now outperforms New York City and New York State averages, and last year its eighth graders outpaced the school district in Bed-Stuy by more than 260% in reading test scores and 540% in math test scores, according to New York City education data.

But for the school to continue improving the lives of its students -- and serving a resilient but impoverished community -- Kalam Id-Din says that it needs more students.

"We depend on our enrollment. Without our enrollment, we don't have the resources. We don't we don't get philanthropy," he said. "For us, really being able to attract and serve our students in our population, that's how we're able to serve everyone."

As a result of the coronavirus -- without the necessary door-knocking for the upcoming school year due to the lockdown still in place -- enrollment at Ember Charter is down nearly 30%. And Kalam Id-Din says that could amount to a $4 million decrease in state funding for the school.

"If we can't do that ... it's going to be really difficult for us to continue to hire social workers, art teachers, counselors, the folks that we need to really pull off our model," Kalam Id-Din said.

Ember Charter is currently just K-8, and the pandemic has jeopardized its plans to expand to a high school. The Board of Regents at the State Education Department plans to vote next month on the school's proposal to expand.

Zaire's mom was counting on it. Back in January she spoke passionately at a public hearing about Ember's plans to expand, expressing how important it would be for Zaire's development.

"Education was very important to my mother," Zaire said. "She told me that having an education will get you farther in life. I do believe that."

Now facing grief that he never could have imagined, Zaire -- still strong and resilient -- is offering this message to his graduation classmates in their yearbooks:

"Do what you want. Excel in everything. Be yourself."

It's been said that legacy is about planting seeds in a garden that you'll never get to see.

In this grief-stricken community, hope abounds that its seeds will continue to flourish.

What to know about the coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map