Last Chance High
Susan Notes: It's good news to see a school trying to help troubled students instead of hitting them with Zero Tolerance policies. And notice the variety of recognition awards given to students.
What was remarkable about the last day of the year at Community Prep, New York City's first public high school for students who have been recently released from juvenile prisons and jails, was that 27 students - a little more than a third of the roster - stayed around for the final assembly.
Gathered in the basement of the school, which occupies three floors of a nondescript office building on East 29th Street, the students whooped and clapped as awards were handed out: Carlos Negron III, most politically conscious, improvement in math. Jose Fernandez, best storyteller. Charles Wyatt, best attendance and improvement in math.
Clutching his certificates, Charles, a tall, broad-shouldered 17-year-old, said softly that his grandmother would be happy.
Charles and his classmates had returned to their neighborhoods after serving time for offenses ranging from assault to drug possession, only to find that the city's other high schools did not want them. Community Prep, a two-year-old transitional school offering preparation for regular high schools or G.E.D. programs, was their last chance.
It had been an intense, frustrating, rewarding, exhausting year. The students started off testing the staff in every way they could think of. Attendance was poor. The principal, Mark Ryan, was delighted the day 10 students arrived on time. When a class trip to the Magic Johnson movie theater in Harlem was planned, only one student showed up. Students walked out of the building whenever they felt like it.
One troublemaker was Carlos, 17, who, when he bothered coming to school, would roam the hallway, ranting at the staff that they were "bourgeois" or "right-wing conservatives." (It was better than some unprintable names that were being thrown at them, said Nedda de Castro, the school's social worker.)
Some students made threats. One day, a 16-year-old taunted the global history teacher, Brendan Connolly, under his breath, "You egghead, you white dude, we're going to mess you up."
The students kept insisting they did not care about school. "Our kids are sure they'll fail," said Betsy Witten, a lawyer who led the effort to start Community Prep. "They've failed at everything."
The year did bring many setbacks. Sixteen students were rearrested. By the end of the year, 20 had simply stopped coming. But there were successes, too.
By June, Charles, Carlos, Jose and four other students who got awards at the final assembly had made enough progress to move on to regular high schools. Three others had made the leap even earlier, starting at regular high schools in March.
Unwelcome in Many Schools
Charles Wyatt returned to Washington Heights last fall, after serving more than a year "upstate," to find that while he had done his time, he could not beat the rap. "Everybody looks at you like you're some kind of criminal," he said. "My old high school said I couldn't come back."
Each year, as many as 8,000 New York City students, ages 13 to 18, return to their neighborhoods from juvenile detention centers and placement facilities, and from Rikers Island, according to school officials. An overwhelming majority are black or Hispanic, and poor. They have low reading scores, records of truancy and disruptive behavior and few credits toward graduation. About half have been labeled as needing special education. Many have no parents at home.
While in custody, they have attended school regularly, and their release is a chance to reconnect to mainstream schools. But just at this crucial moment, many high schools, reluctant to take on what they perceive as difficult students, turn them away. The city started Community Prep two years ago just for them. A partnership between the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, a nonprofit agency known as Cases, and the City Board of Education, the idea behind the school is simple: small classes, plenty of counseling and individual attention.
That a judge has ordered these students to go to school, or risk being locked up again, is not necessarily the best motivator. Josh Brignoni, a 16-year-old, complained that his "P.O." was "all on my back," referring to his after-care worker, the equivalent of a probation officer for juvenile offenders. "You gotta go to school," Josh said, quoting the worker.
Staying in school is the best chance young offenders have at not being rearrested. Statistically, the odds are against them. A recent New York State study found that 81 percent of male offenders 17 and under in New York City were rearrested within 36 months of their release. The evidence strongly suggests that the vast majority of those offenders were not in school at the time of their arrests, said Tim Lisante, the superintendent in charge of Community Prep.
Only one in eight students who has been in custody makes it through high school, according to another study. Ana Bermudez, a lawyer for Cases who runs Community Prep along with Mr. Ryan, the principal, said, "Mark and I tell each other that if we can get two out of eight, we're in business."
The first year at Community Prep, which opened in downtown Brooklyn in the fall of 2002, was rocky. Teachers, who offered more support than structure, were overwhelmed.
"They messed up," Carlos Negron said. "They tried to be our friends."
On one occasion, Carlos locked himself in a classroom for two hours to protest the lack of a science teacher, emerging only when the police arrived. "I wasn't gaining any credits for science," explained Carlos, who had been dipping into "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
The school reopened in Manhattan last fall with a new staff trained in an approach that had been successful at eight privately run schools for delinquent youth in Pennsylvania. It emphasized structure and high expectations as well as counseling and support.
At Community Prep, no one checks students' court records. "You're a completely different person when you come here," Charles Wyatt said.
This reporter was allowed to visit the school with the stipulation that the students not be asked about being locked up. The students, who are referred to Community Prep by a special Manhattan school admissions office, reflect the general population of adolescent offenders, Ms. Bermudez said. She estimated that half had been sentenced for drug-related offenses.
"These are not bad kids," she said. "These are very needy young people who want to succeed, but the ways they have found to succeed are the ones that have gotten them into trouble."
The Hat and Coat Rule
At Community Prep, just walking through the door is considered an achievement. There are no metal detectors, just a uniformed security agent, Calvin Moss, and staff members who greet every student every day with a high-five or a handshake.
But hats and coats have to come off. Mr. Ryan and Ms. Bermudez are ambivalent about the Department of Education rule because they know that some of their students, whose lives are defined by the untold stresses of poverty, feel more secure wearing them. They know that a hat can hide an embarrassment - hair that could not be washed because there was no hot water at home. A coat could hide a student's wearing the same clothes as the day before.
"You have to take a good look at the hat, and if it's a nice hat, say, 'Nice hat, put it in your locker,' " Mr. Ryan said. "Sometimes it's a student's greatest possession at that moment."
And so, encounters over the hat and coat rule, rather than being a power play, can be a chance to connect. One morning last spring, Mr. Ryan stopped Josh Brignoni, who had failed to remove his blue woolen hat.
Josh brushed off the principal. "No, I ain't taking off my hat today," he said.
Mr. Ryan said calmly: "That's a bad decision, Josh. You know the rules: That's the street, this is school."
It took nearly an hour, but Josh finally let on that he was upset because he had just found out that a younger relative was pregnant. Then he took off his hat.
Even behavior that would draw an automatic suspension in any other school becomes a reason to talk at Community Prep. Rasheem Sally, 16, distinguished himself from his classmates by coming to school every day and taking off his hat. But he constantly disrupted class.
"I did what I wanted - walk out of classrooms, curse at teachers," Rasheem said later.
He had bounced around schools from Brooklyn to Queens - where the family spent time in a homeless shelter - to Harlem as his mother, Shashona Sally, searched for an apartment. At 14, he was arrested for what Ms. Sally described as a nonviolent school-related offense, and incarcerated for nearly a year.
But at Community Prep, Rasheem's behavior gradually improved. A turning point came in mid-October, after he threatened to stick a pencil in the neck of his teacher, Mr. Connolly, and hit him with a large block of plastic foam because he would not hand over Rasheem's CD.
It was time for "the big talk." Administrators sat down with Rasheem, his mother and Mr. Connolly. While they made it clear to Rasheem that his behavior was unacceptable, they also told him that he was bright, and that they wanted him in school.
Ms. Bermudez went through a series of questions with Rasheem: What were you thinking? Who did you affect by your actions, and how? What do you need to make things right?
Ms. Sally, a kitchen aide in a Harlem center for the elderly, came away from the meeting impressed. "They let Rasheem talk," she said. "They asked me how I felt about the situation."
For Community Prep's Thanksgiving lunch, Rasheem brought in a big bowl of banana pudding that he and his mother had made. He stood and gave thanks for his mother, and for the staff - "even you, Mr. Connolly" - for helping him change.
Four months later, Rasheem and two other students had progressed enough to move on to regular high schools.
Carlos, meanwhile, was coming to school more often. He had come to a realization: "You don't have to make a ruckus to get attention. You already got attention here."
"I want a regular diploma," he said. "I ain't satisfied with no G.E.D. I'm better than that."
Setbacks Amid Successes
But the year was not all uninterrupted progress. Attendance hovered at 50 to 60 percent. Five students were rearrested over the Christmas break, two for disorderly conduct, the other three for drug-related crimes. "People could say that the fact that they got rearrested means we didn't reach them," Ms. Bermudez said. "But it was during vacation. They were not getting arrested during the school year."
Ms. Bermudez considered it a breakthrough when one of the five students confided that he had been acting out because the work was too hard. The student's mother was dying of cancer. After being jailed briefly on Rikers Island, the student disappeared, and Community Prep was unable to find him.
One of the other rearrested students, Cliff N., 17, returned to school, but continued to struggle. One day he would ace a math test and impress everyone with his poetic hard-edged raps. The next he would arrive late, sullen and argumentative, and an hour later he would curse out Mr. Ryan and stalk out of the building. But when Cliff walked through the door the next day, Mr. Ryan would welcome him.
Things had fallen apart in middle school, Cliff said. "I started smoking, not learning nothing," he said. "If I try to learn, I'm getting distracted." At age 15, he was sent to a juvenile facility upstate.
In April, Mr. Ryan suspended Cliff for punching two students. In May, Cliff was back, but his continuing defiance earned him another suspension. A few weeks later, he was rearrested and sent to Rikers Island, where he remains. Cliff missed the school trip to the dude ranch in upstate New York, but 24 other students showed up, riding horses in their baggy jeans and jerseys. By the end of the year, Rasheem and the other two students who had moved on in the spring were all doing well in their new schools. Last week, Carlos was accepted at Wildcat Academy, a charter high school in Manhattan.
Mr. Lisante, the superintendent, said Community Prep's approach will be used in four new programs the city plans to start in the fall for students coming out of custody.
Meanwhile, Ms. Bermudez and Mr. Ryan are worried about what might happen to their students over the coming months. Time off from school means opportunities to get in trouble. With that in mind, summer school at Community Prep started on July 12. Charles Wyatt and 10 other students have been attending regularly.
New York Times
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