By Maria Clark
Prior to signing up for the GED certification course with the Youth and Adult Education Services at East Side House on Alexander Avenue, Jose Rivera, 18, had a hard time believing he would ever graduate from high school, let alone graduate at the top of his class.
“I wasn’t taking school seriously,” he said.
When he arrived at East House he had read only one book in his lifetime. He is now reading Homer’s Greek epic “The Odyssey,” and his favorite reading includes Norman Mailer’s 700-page novel “Naked and the Dead.” He hopes to become an English teacher.
Many of the students who graduated in June from Bronx Haven High School, Mott Haven Village Preparatory High School, and the Young Adult Education Services program at East Side House Settlement, spent years struggling to remain in school.
Now diploma in hand, they’re looking forward to college.
Rivera credits the faculty. “The teachers have passion here. It feels like family,” he said.
Eric Thomas, 40, a beloved teacher at the YAES program, says that to work with students who are in danger of dropping out he needs to address the unique situation each student is in.
“Some of them get lost in the transition from middle school to high school. They don’t have the coping skills,” said Thomas. “You have to be in tune with what the students needs are.”
East Side House provides funding for Bronx Haven, Mott Haven Prep and the YAES program. The high schools are administered by the city’s Department of Education, but have East Side House staff assigned to their offices as well.
“In all three of these programs, the needs of the students come first,” said John Sanchez, the executive director at East Side House. “Poverty can crush ambition and hope, but not potential. “
The schools expect a 90 percent graduation rate, a vast difference from what once was a 70 percent drop out rate in the area.
Because the risk of dropping out is high for many of their students, the schools monitor them closely and act quickly.
“We will call their parents and we are going to come after them,” said Sanchez.
Each school caters to the particular needs of their students. Approximately 17 percent of the kids at Mott Haven Village Prep on St. Anne’s Avenue are Special Ed students, and 12 percent are English language learners. Many of the students at Bronx Haven High School on Eagle Avenue are over 18.
“When they came to these programs they were judged unlikely to succeed. They have proved they always had the potential to succeed,” said Sanchez. “It was the adults in the school system that failed them.”
Christine Bruno, 17, is the valedictorian of Mott Haven Village Prep’s 2009 graduation class. She arrived at the school four years earlier unable to speak fluent English.
“I didn’t speak well the English language. Thank God for the support of the teachers here,” she said. “If students need help they will stay with you until you get your work done.”
Maribel Palafox, 18, the class salutatorian, is eager to move on to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, this summer.
Mott Haven Village Prep is structured on the idea of preparing students from 9th grade onwards for a college education. Field trips involve visits to college. Close to 100 percent of the graduating students will be heading off to college this year.
“They never told us ‘You might go to college’; it was always ‘You are going,’” Palafox said.
“Small schools are a better model,” said Dan Abramovski, 29, who teaches Government and Economics at the school. “It decreases the chance of students falling through the cracks.”
Sherrissa Williams, 18, and Kyme McCray, 18, both graduated June 26 from Bronx Haven High School, which celebrated its first graduation this year. Williams will be studying nursing at Hostos Community College in the fall.
“I would have dropped out. My friends and I wouldn’t have come to school,” she said
Damaris Estrada, 43, hugged her daughter Emilyann Montez, 20, who received her GED almost a year ago, but walked on June 12 at the Young Adult Education Services graduation.
“I’m so proud of her. She has worked so hard,” said Estrada.
Michael Mc Duffie, 47, cried as his son Christopher, 19, accepted his GED diploma.
“This really paid off,” he said.