graduation day

How one Brooklyn teen gave up gang life for a shot at graduation

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Jahrell Thomas, center, helps a classmate with his cap.

Jahrell Thomas didn’t expect to graduate high school.

Though he initially liked his school, Manhattan’s Leadership and Public Service High School, he quickly lost interest, often wandering out of class to hang out in the hallways.

By sophomore year, he had joined a gang. “I was outside late and the people that I was with said, ‘Do you do you want to go beat someone up to be in this gang?’ And so I had to actually beat the person up, and I joined the gang that night,” Thomas recalls. He often spent his time roaming the streets, drinking and picking fights.

So when the 19-year-old showed up at Brooklyn Democracy Academy, an alternative school for students who are older and have fallen behind, he didn’t have high hopes. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to graduate,” he said.

But on Monday, with his mom watching from the audience, the now 21-year-old earned a diploma — along with roughly 50 other classmates who struggled at traditional high schools.

Thomas and several of his classmates credited Brooklyn Democracy Academy — which is run as a partnership between the city and the Jewish Child Care Association — with getting them over what once seemed like insurmountable hurdles.

The Brownsville school is one of several dozen “transfer” schools across the city that exclusively serve students who are over-age and behind in credits, pairing each student with an advocate-counselor who helps shepherd the student through high school.

The individual support, smaller class sizes, and being around classmates who have experienced similar setbacks, some students said, helped them get back on track. “There are challenges,” said Delisa Stoner, who also graduated Monday, “but they help you out.”

Democracy Academy tries to ensure that it only enrolls students who are committed to doing their best to graduate: Students and their guardians must interview to gain admission.

Despite his commitment to the school, Thomas is quick to admit that his path to graduation wasn’t entirely smooth. Janelle Tinsley, who served as Thomas’s advocate-counselor — coaxing him to school, or offering advice — noted that staying on track has been difficult. “It was a real, real fight to the end,” she said.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Jahrell Thomas with his mother and siblings immediately before graduation

The school’s staff also acknowledge some challenges. Attendance and reading scores could use improvement, said Cherise Littlejohn, a program director with the Jewish Child Care Association who works in the school. But, she adds, “From where and how the students come in, I think we’re doing pretty well.” (At 56 percent, the school’s graduation rate is above average compared with other alternative schools.)

Through a grin, Thomas said he will attend Southeastern Community College in Iowa next year, where he landed a full basketball scholarship.

“It was a straight grind, senior year,” he said. “But I just said, ‘You can’t give up, you can’t give up.’”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”