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March 15, 2024

Graham Browne’s Forte Prep welcomes its first class of high schoolers.


Ask Graham Browne ’04 to describe the type of student who thrives at Forte Preparatory Academy, the fifth through eighth grade charter school he founded six years ago in Queens, New York, and his eyes will light up as he talks about Gaby, the president of Forte’s first graduating class and now a junior at a Massachusetts prep school. While visiting the school last fall, Browne got into a conversation with Gaby’s adviser, who spoke about how well Gaby was doing, noted that she’d won a schoolwide citizenship award … and mentioned that she had joined the volleyball team.

“But this isn’t one of those ‘wow, she never played volleyball before and now she’s gone up all the ranks and is a varsity star’ stories,” Browne says. “She’s not very good at volleyball. But her adviser was telling me about how she saw Gaby in the gym all by herself one Saturday practicing sets and bumps against a wall, not because anybody told her to but because she was like, ‘I want to get better at this, and I don’t need a structured practice or any other motivation. I just want to do it.’ That’s the kind of commitment we see in so many of our young people — that intrinsic motivation — and the fact that Gaby has left our environment and is still exhibiting those behaviors and characteristics, it just says to me, ‘yes, it’s working.’”

It’s perhaps a similar sort of motivation that compelled Browne to establish Forte, which prepares academically talented Queens youngsters to succeed in college preparatory high schools and beyond. A New Jersey native raised by immigrants from Jamaica and St. Vincent who were “constantly on the lookout for the best opportunities” for him, Browne came to St. Paul’s School by way of the Wight Foundation, a program that provides financial support to promising students from the greater Newark area. He earned his undergraduate degree in urban education at Brown University and began his MBA at Yale with the intent to build an afterschool program or series of programs that would connect high-quality arts instruction to public schools in New York City. “But as I started to work on the pieces of the program and what the intended impact and long-term goals of it were, I realized we’d only be spending a couple hours of the school day with these students,” he recalls. “And while it might be really valuable to them for that time … the bigger leverage point to make a difference was the school itself and how to put students on a different trajectory.”

Browne earned his MBA in 2015 and began the process of starting Forte Prep the same year, writing his charter application and recruiting members of his board as part of a fellowship with Building Excellent Schools. Forte opened in September 2017 with 89 fifth graders, adding a new grade with each successive year of operations. Today, Forte Prep is home to approximately 360 students, 80% of whom are Latino, 20% of whom have special needs and 20% of whom are native speakers of a language other than English. In September, Browne opened Forte Prep High School with approximately 100 ninth graders, roughly 40% of whom are graduates of the middle school program. As with the middle school, Browne’s plan is to grow the high school one grade at a time, graduating his first class in 2027.

Browne describes the decision to open the high school as arising from a new need that he and others observed. “Through our high school success department and the people who work to help connect students to opportunities at independent schools, [we’ve realized] there just aren’t enough seats for our students to gain access to,” he says. “We knew that there will always be students for whom the independent school path would be a great option, but it’s our responsibility as a school to create the same kind of trajectory-altering opportunities for the students who can’t get access to those programs.”

The data speak to the success of the Forte approach. For the 2022-23 school year, nearly 90% of the school’s eighth graders tested at or above grade level for math — well above citywide and district results — and more than 70% tested at or above grade-level for language arts. Forte has sent graduates to Middlesex, Choate, Berkshire, Taft and California’s Thacher School.

While Forte Prep has yet to send its first graduate to SPS, Browne is hopeful that will happen soon ­— for another student like Gaby, or like Browne himself.