no excuses

"Remarkable" seniors show resolve to make it to graduation day

During their high school years, they lost loved ones, dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, lived in homeless shelters, and raised children on their own.

These are just a few of the obstacles that 178 graduating seniors from across the city overcame to earn the Chancellor’s Award for Remarkable Achievement, which has been awarded to students since 2006.

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“I am truly awestruck by these students’ commitment to education, including their capability to stay focused on graduation and move on to college even through times of extreme difficulty and stress,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott during a reception at Tweed Courthouse on Monday evening that Mayor Bloomberg also attended.

GothamSchools spoke with some of the honorees at the event to find out about the challenges they overcame to get to graduation — and what they credit for their success.

Demetrius Johnson has lived in more than 30 foster care homes and ended up in juvenile detention when he was 16. That’s when he decided to change his life around. He enrolled at Freedom Academy High School, a Brooklyn high school that the city is closing this year, where he excelled in math. Johnson will attend SUNY Jefferson this fall and eventually wants to attend Columbia Law School to become a lawyer.

His biggest obstacle: Carrying the burden of being a foster kid. “Mentally, I was out of it. It was hard to pull myself out of that darkness to get to where I am today.”

Reason for his success today: His social worker Tony Ince. “She’s been there for me since I was 13 years old, from day one,” Johnson said. When he was 16 and locked up in juvenile detention, he told her he didn’t want her to be his social worker any more. “Then she said something to me I’ll never forget, she said, ‘Demetrius, you’ll leave me before I leave you.’ To this day she’s kept her word,” he said. “When everyone else doubted me, everyone said I wasn’t going to be nothing, I wasn’t going to amount to anything, she was like, ‘Demetrius, you’re gonna make it,’ and those words just started sinking in my heart and my head. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

photo-5Octavia Thompson was hospitalized halfway through her junior year and diagnosed with a rare disease that forced into a coma for more than six weeks. She had to relearn how to breathe, eat, and walk, but was determined to graduate on time. Thompson, who lives with her family in a homeless shelter, eventually returned to LaGuardia High School for Music and Art & the Performing Arts and completed all the requirements to graduate. She plans to attend Hofstra University to study psychology in the fall.

“Don’t ever pity yourself or make excuses,” Thompson said. “If you’re struggling, be an active struggler; do everything you can to improve your situation. Face the challenges, believe in yourself, and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever expect.”

Her biggest obstacle: Transitioning from the hospital to school.

Reason for her success today: Her faith in herself and her faith in God. “I’m a big believer that God will help you and God will answer your prayers. I’ve been doing that a lot in the hospital — praying that I’ll get better. And look at me now, I’m better!”

photo-4Lubna Rahmani assumed responsibility for raising her sister’s child after her sister left home just a few days before Rahmani started 10th grade at Townsend Harris High School.

Rahmani raised the little girl, who is now two and a half years old, while also being a full-time student and working as a volunteer at her local public library. She plans to attend CUNY Macaulay Honors College in the fall to study business.

She is the first in her family to finish high school and go to college.

Her biggest obstacle: Raising her sister’s child. “The kid was four days old when she left,” Rahmani said.

Reason for her success today: “I think if my family wasn’t financially unstable, if the problems didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist here today. The problems, the struggles, they make you who you are.”

Headlines

In smaller gun violence protests, hundreds of students walk out of NYC schools to mark Columbine anniversary

PHOTO: Drew Angerer
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Student activists rally against gun violence at Washington Square Park, near the campus of New York University, April 20, 2018 in New York City. On the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting, student activists across the country are participating in school walkouts to demand action on gun reform. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

From Brooklyn to the Bronx, students left their classrooms Friday to protest gun violence in demonstrations that were smaller but no less than passionate than last month’s massive walkout.

This time around, school officials weren’t giving a free pass to students for skipping school to protest — the Department of Education said there could be repercussions and Chancellor Richard Carranza urged students to stay in class because “you don’t have to be out of school all day to make your voices known. You’ve already made your voices known.”

According to the Department of Education, attendance on Friday was 89.89 percent, down just slightly from Thursday’s attendance of 91.36 percent. But that number might not account for students who briefly left school to attend protests after the school day started.

The walkout was designed to protest gun violence and planned for the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.

Many of the demonstrators gathered in Washington Square Park for a “die-in.” But other students stayed close to home, such as the School for Global Leaders on the Lower East Side. Here are some photos and videos shared on Twitter that give a sense of the walkout’s scope in New York.

#NationalSchoolWalkout

Carranza discourages student participation in Friday’s gun violence walkout — which could come with consequences

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/P.S. 261
Students at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn walked out of class in March to honor the victims of the Parkland, Fla. shooting and call for stricter gun control laws.

Last month, 100,000 students streamed out of city classrooms to protest gun violence, demonstrations condoned by the mayor and education department officials.

Similar but scaled-down protests are being planned for Friday, but with a major difference — students are more likely to face consequences for walking out of their classes this time.

For the March 14 walkout, held on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17, city education department officials laid out clear rules meant to facilitate student participation. Anyone who left school for the scheduled protest but returned immediately afterward would not be marked absent.

This week, students who are not in school will be marked absent, according to the education department.

At his first town hall meeting with students, Chancellor Richard Carranza implored them not to walk out of class this week.

“I supported it in March,” he said. “This one — I don’t think it’s the same thing.”

Instead, Carranza said, students should focus on having conversations about the issue inside their schools. “You don’t have to be out of school all day to make your voices known. You’ve already made your voices known.”

The department’s revised approach comes as activists planning the day of action worry that focus on gun control policy is diminishing as the Parkland shooting recedes into the past. That shooting has inspired a sustained protest movement led largely by students, but other topics have pushed it out of headlines in recent weeks.

Indeed, advocates are expecting a smaller turnout this time around, with about a dozen New York City schools registered on the national organizing page — including Bard High School Early College Queens and Stuyvesant High School.

One of the biggest demonstrations is expected to be an afternoon rally at Washington Square park, but other schools are opting for a day of action within their own buildings — and some students say they are prioritizing other ways of making a difference.

“We will be hosting a lunch and learn and creating kindness cards,” Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice junior Robina Afzal said in an email. “We don’t feel the walkouts are most effective. Instead we can stay in school and create a change.”

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/P.S. 261
Fifth-grade students at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn are planning to walk out of school on April 20, marking the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. They will head to borough hall and deliver letters to their local U.S. representative calling for stricter gun control laws.

At M.S. 51 in Brooklyn, students will take part in a day of assemblies where they will write letters to elected officials to demand action on issues that are important to young people.

“We want to balance our walkout and take real action that might influence policy-makers, rather than making another powerful public statement,” according to a press release sent by the middle school students there.

P.S. 261 in Brooklyn is one of the few elementary schools expected to participate on Friday. The fifth grade students have assigned themselves organizing tasks, with separate working groups dedicated to poster-making, writing original freedom songs, and even a media team. They plan to march to Borough Hall, where students will stand in a circle, sing, and chant to draw attention to young lives lost to gun violence every day across the United States.

“I think we should do it outside of the school because more people can see us walking out, because this is very important,” said Bayan Clark, a fifth-grader who is helping to organize the event. “Kids get shot every single day and it’s not just in school. It’s also outside.”

Principal Jackie Allen said such social actions are woven into the school’s teaching and learning.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, students wore black armbands in solidarity with protesters who drew attention to racial profiling and bias. When President Trump proposed an immigration ban on majority-Muslim countries, they marched around their school and created posters to signal that everyone is welcome at P.S. 261.

Ever since the Parkland shooting, students have been tackling issues around gun violence, writing letters to local elected representatives and making connections to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We try to make sure the curriculum is relevant,” Allen said. “What’s happening in the world, it does make our way into the classrooms and kids want to talk about it.”

“We want to reflect democratic values,” she said. “We want kids to take social action and develop social awareness.”