Hughes, the school’s principal, came on board in September of 2002, after working at schools in Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The previous year, J.H.S. 292 ranked at the top of a citywide list of troubled schools.
Today, it boasts significantly improved test scores, a bevy of extracurricular programs and a reputation as a safe haven for youth in what remains one of - if not the most - violent neighborhoods in New York City.
It has been a stunning turnaround, led by a man with an equally interesting life’s story, one that begins in the segregated South. Hughes, who is African American, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1952.
“I had to ride the back of the bus when I was coming up. Everything was segregated,” Hughes said. He was barred from attending his local library and the city museum. Blacks were allowed to attend the zoo only one day a week.
Even then, Hughes stood out; he led a delegation from his high school in a march for sanitation workers that featured King, shortly before the civil rights leader was assassinated in April of 1968.
That summer, Hughes left Memphis for New York, settling with his mother in public housing in Fort Greene. He went on to earn several master's degrees and worked for a brief period on Wall Street before turning to education full-time.
J.H.S. 292 does have an unusually successful roster of programs.
There’s the famous Soul Tigers marching band, which has performed with the likes of Mariah Carey and Jessica Simpson, and has the distinction of being the first minority group to lead the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
There’s a martial arts team that competes around the world, an African dance group, a culinary arts course - the list goes on and on. Most importantly, student performance has increased by leaps and bounds in the past eight years.
“I’m so proud of my students,” Hughes said. “We’re one of the best schools now.”