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Uncharted Territory: Inside New York City’s School Of Last Chances

Rebecca Klein
AIM I students at their graduation last year.  (Photo Credit: Julienne Schaer)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. ― The day starts around 7 a.m. Schneida Howard, a counselor at a charter school in Brooklyn, New York, sends off a wave of texts to a group of 10 students. At the very least, she hopes to get them out of bed at a decent hour. At best, she hopes to get them to school bright and early.

Any time of the day, any day of the week, her students need her. Sometimes they want her to stop them from doing something stupid, relishing the adult guidance. Other times they just need someone to shoot the breeze with, like an aunt or a big sister, because they have no one else. Her son has become so used to hearing his mother talk to students that he will ask her for updates on their lives. “Is so and so back at home with her mommy now?” the sixth-grader might ask.

Howard’s students attend New Visions AIM Charter High School I, a charter high school near the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. The school was created in 2012 under a different name with different management, but with the same audacious mission: to educate the students whom other schools had failed. These are the toughest of students, the kids who have either been in jail, become homeless or live in foster care.

Some kids have experienced all three.

Students who attend AIM I are 15 to 21 years old, the oldest age that a student can attend a public school in New York, by law. Every matriculated child has been held back for at least one grade, and oftentimes has faced insurmountable obstacles in their personal lives.

Last year, with a school of about 200 students, only about 30 graduated, and many had taken more than four years. This number, while representing a huge increase from previous years, falls far short of goals set by state education leaders. While these numbers may paint a picture of failure, the reality is so much more complicated.

HuffPost spent three weeks embedded at AIM I at the end of the 2016-17 school year, with several follow-up visits this year. The school gives kids one last shot at an education. Our goal was to observe how that happens.

After all, many kids who make their way through AIM I won’t graduate or move onto higher education. It’s a story, with ups and downs, successes and failures, that may be informative to schools around the country, as year after year, the share of homeless children and children in foster care remains high. It is the story of the thousands of complicated extra steps a school must take to serve a difficult-to-reach population when there is no other stable institution lending a helping hand.

The School Day Begins

The first few minutes of the day are key, Howard said. Because so many students are coming from shelters or foster homes and unstable situations, they may show up apathetic or mad, already on the defense.

“Their day doesn’t start out as pleasant as most,” Howard said, sitting at the front desk one morning in between greeting students as they arrive. “By the time they come in here, say about 9 in the morning, they’ve already had an argument. They’re maybe hungry. There’s no telling from one extreme to the next.”

Counselors like Howard, usually the male ones, are on watch for texts from students asking to escort them to school, so that they might feel safer. Walking to school includes traversing blocks in hostile territory and going past two nearby homeless shelters, one for women and one for men, both serving clients with psychiatric illness or substance abuse issues.  

Howard said she likes to make silly jokes as the kids come in, hoping to “reset” their day. She calls female students “beautiful.” She ogles the children of the teenage mothers and fathers who use the daycare located on school premises.

“Most of them just need to be loved and understood. They feel no one understands them. And no one cares. Unless you show them you understand,” she said calmly, with an air of maternal wisdom.

Counselors, like Howard, keep tabs on hungry children, sometimes discreetly whisking them away to a back room to provide them with snacks. Other students, often homeless or transient, are given a bag filled with personal hygiene products like toothpaste and deodorant. Some are taken to the locker room for a shower and set of clean clothing. Teachers can tell who is homeless by who rushes to the front of the lunch line.

Teachers and students complain that the school looks like a prison. There are bars on the windows, a metal detector at the entrance. Natural sunlight rarely makes its way inside. Security guards roam the halls. These characteristics are not unusual for schools serving high-minority populations in New York City.

But it’s still more welcoming than most other spaces the students find themselves.

AIM I staff members said they have heard stories of unimaginable trauma from students. There’s the student who has trouble around male teachers after having been raped in a group home. There’s the student who is bouncing in between homes because her mother’s boyfriend assaulted her and her mother does not believe it happened. There’s the student who has a very sick, non-English-speaking father, and she acts as his caretaker and translator. One teacher suspects a few of her students are victims of sex trafficking.

“Stakes are high. It’s literally by any means necessary to help our students get their education,” said school principal Kristin Greer.

Every Hour, Every Day, Something New

Greer, a young principal at 32 years old, is always effusive and warm when dealing with students, but firm when it comes to motivating staff or fixing specific obstacles. She has been the school’s principal for three years and tries to inject joy into the school wherever she can.

Before she started at AIM I, the school had already cycled through multiple principals. AIM I has still seen high rates of staff turnover, especially after undergoing a management change last year, but Greer tries to maintain a level of normalcy in a school where no two days are ever the same.

The school is almost never at full capacity. Last year, on any given day, about 100 of the school’s 200 students were expected to show. Numbers tended to drop throughout the year, as it got warmer. Students with good attendance are sometimes rewarded with gift cards. Counselors will drive to students’ scattered apartments throughout the week to try and find them and bring them to school. Sometimes they find students at home, maybe in their pajamas.

Ali Engel, a literacy specialist at the school, said all her students are smart, but they weren’t given the right tools to succeed at school.

“It’s pretty hard for kids whose basic existence outside depends on never, ever, ever being vulnerable, to show up somewhere to admit you don’t know something,” said Engel, a 28-year-old who’s been working at the school for three years.

And then, even on smooth days, the realities of the outside world can sometimes creep in.

Last year, about once a month, the school received a visit from the New York Police Department or federal authorities who were searching for a student wanted in connection with a crime.

A strict protocol immediately goes into place when a police officer visits the school. Teachers close their doors and sometimes cover them so students are unable to see the officers roaming the halls or making an arrest. Some students have involuntary reactions to seeing cops, having experienced so much trauma previously. They might urinate or defecate in fear.

One day last May, authorities came looking for a student, but he wasn’t there. Staff members contemplated the student’s fate, discussing how he was going to learn some lessons the hard way.

For many students, the impact of trauma will follow them wherever they go. Engel sees the effects on her students’ brains as they try to make connections to material. She pointed to scientific evidence showing how trauma will change one’s brain.

“They’re actually doing, like, 12 different types of school at once while they’re here,” Engel said. “They’re taking preschool and high school.”

Last year, a student from another high school located in the same building as AIM I was killed, a student with whom some AIM I students were friends. Gun violence is part of the daily reality for the school’s students.  

Teachers feel the pain, too.

“Most of our students are victims of PTSD, depending on how you define that,” said Caitlin Chavez Baker, a 30-year-old English teacher who worked at the school until the end of last year, but continues to work at a high-needs school. Because of secondhand trauma, “especially new teachers, I think that they should have a good therapist.”

Not Throwing Away Their Shot

There is a sizable, dedicated group of regular students, who show up early and often. There are also the stragglers: those that show up after several months of missing in action, deciding they want to “do” school again. They’re usually welcomed back.

Classes at AIM I are 90 minutes long. They used to be shorter, but having to pack up and switch classrooms so often was too distracting for the students to settle back down.

Teachers work with students of all levels. Some students read at a first-grade level. Some read at a nearly college level. Most are at a fourth- to sixth-grade level, Baker said. Still, teachers are expected to get all these students to achieve on state standardized tests.

To pass Baker’s class last year, at the very least, students had to show up four out of five days a week, something many of her students didn’t muster.

The fact that some students show up at all can feel like a success.

“Whereas other schools might look at it and say, ‘Oh, they only graduate 30 kids,’ but that’s 30 kids that couldn’t make it through somewhere else, anywhere else, which I think is huge,” Baker said.

Baker’s classroom management style is tailored to the specific obstacles her students face. In class, Baker constantly asked her students if they they were hungry or thirsty. She said there is a big difference in behavior once students are hydrated and well-fed. She rarely gave her students homework, either. How could you give a child homework when they might not have a home, she said.

Other teachers will sometimes assign work via an online program, so that students can work remotely, wherever they might be. School counselors and administrators constantly update students’ schedules, trying to find new and creative ways to get a student the credits they need to graduate. It’s part of the flexibility that comes with being a charter school.

This idea — of catering work to students’ individual situations — is a common thread connecting different parts of the school, where there’s a 6-to-1 staff-student ratio.

Success at AIM I is about getting a child who had disengaged from the system to start showing back up.

AIM I, until the end of last year called Roads Charter High School, was almost shut down after failing to meet the graduation and standardized testing goals the school’s authorizing body had set for it in the 2016-17 school year. Then it was taken over by New Visions, a different charter school management organization.  

Charter schools in New York are usually run by nonprofit management organizations under five-year contracts; unlike district-run public schools. Charter schools are exempt from certain rules and regulations that district schools are beholden to. In the case of AIM I, this means greater autonomy in terms of staffing, hours and curriculum than a traditional public school. New Visions management organization runs eight charter schools in addition to AIM I and AIM II, AIM I’s sister school located in the Bronx. The other eight schools are not specifically designed to serve students who have fallen behind, like AIM I.

In The Homestretch

One day during lunch, Greer, the principal, blasted “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar and danced with students.

Students at AIM I can select an area of study when they enroll; Greer instituted programs like cooking and arts to give them a broader array of options. There’s a new program, called Hope Dealers, where successful adults come and talk about their paths — Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC even paid the students a visit.

Last spring, the school had its first school play. They performed “The Wiz.” There were some last-minute kinks along the way. It was delayed several weeks from the original performance date to give kids more time to rehearse. On the night of the performance, the student who played the cowardly lion never showed. But by the time the curtain closed, teachers were weeping with pride. Quiet kids, who teachers struggled to get to class, were performing onstage and taking on leadership roles.

It was a small but meaningful victory.

So many of the students at AIM I are close to the finish line of a really long race, almost too exhausted to get to the end. To make that final push, staff members have to run alongside them, feed them water, and yell words of encouragement.  

Teachers and counselors stay late, tutor on weekends, make themselves available over the summer, accompany students to doctors’ appointments, counsel them about relationships and talk to them late at night about whatever anxiety might be keeping them from performing their best.

“If I don’t intervene, if staff here don’t intervene, if we don’t get the parents involved, agencies involved, what’s going to happen?” Greer asked. She has spent years trying to change the culture of the school from the top down, by sheer force of personality.

There are some indications that it’s working.

In the 2016-17 school year, the most students graduated in the school’s history, though the school’s four-year graduation rate was still far below the New York City average.

And some students made progress in ways they had never expected. Jahquel Shorter McKoy was the first in his family to graduate high school last June, a feat he originally didn’t think possible. Teachers had watched McKoy, now 21, transform before their eyes, and beamed with pride when recalling his time at AIM I.

Before going to AIM I, McKoy had dropped out of his previous high school.

“School wasn’t for me,” McKoy said. “I didn’t think I was gonna get my high school diploma. Lot of people doubted me, too, at my other schools. ’Cause I was in the hallways. But look at me now.”  

McKoy is an obvious success story. Then there are the ones that are less obvious — the students who don’t show up in easily defined metrics.

One day last May, Howard mediated a conflict between one of AIM I’s students and a student in the neighboring school. What could have ended in a physical fight instead ended in a case of hurt pride and bruised egos.

The student in question had grown leaps and bounds emotionally in her years at AIM I, Howard said, but how do you quantify emotional development? The student was still prone to conflict, but the arguments have become easier to defuse. Her academics had improved too. Instead of wandering the halls for all of class time, she might now go to class, take a bathroom pass, and only stay out for 10 minutes. These soft improvements could translate to better life decisions outside of school too, teachers hoped.

“When I advocate for my students, and then you see they actually get it?” Howard said. “It really just makes it worth it.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a fellowship from the Education Writers Association, a nonprofit journalism group.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.