High school academy gives teens a second chance to graduate


By Sisi Wei

Numbers can be misleading.

At the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy, the numbers mislead by 71 percentage points.

The academy started in 1992 as an alternative school for high school students on one-year suspension and was transformed into a charter school in 2000. Split into two campuses, the school places ninth and tenth graders in the Bronx campus and puts eleventh and twelfth graders in an office building across from Battery Park. Without any entrance requirements, the charter school accepts all transfers, including those on probation or parole. Ninety percent of their students receive free or reduced lunch.

Seen as a last resort school for students, “most of [my peers] are here for one common cause – to get that diploma,” said Aarondell Lowery, a 20-year-old who graduated from Wildcat Academy this year.

But the school’s low graduation rate has haunted the academy for its entire existence.

Compared to other schools in New York, Wildcat Academy has one of the lowest graduation rates – four percent – according to the Department of Education’s New York State School Report Card.

Four percent, however, isn’t even close to the number of students the academy is graduating.

According to the Accountability and Overview Report released by the D.O.E., a school’s graduation rate is determined by the percentage of students who earn a diploma within four years of entering high school. A student who has graduated this year but started high school earlier than 2003 would not be included in the graduation rate. Instead, the student was recorded as one who did not graduate in 2007.

But the average student who transfers to the academy is 17-years-old with 4 credits, said Principal Ron Tabano.

“At 17, they should be a senior,” he said. “But with 4 credits, they’re barely a freshman.”

To graduate on par with the D.O.E.’s four-year-plan, these transfer students would need to make up four years worth of credits within the one year they attend Wildcat Academy. If they can’t, it reflects poorly within the academy’s overall report card.

“And that’s where we get killed because no one starts here,” Tabano said. “If [the student] started in 2003 at another school, then we’re on the clock.” Wildcat Academy’s current 475 students represent transfers from 243 different high schools in and out of New York City.

In contrast to the four-year graduation rate, the academy graduates 60 percent of its students within six years of starting high school, said Tabano. The six-year count means most transfers to the academy graduate after two or three years. The school’s overall graduation rate is 75 percent, well above the four-year rate at traditional high schools.

“We have a lot of intelligent, gifted students who come here who have had family problems, emotional problems…some sort of social problems, and in a larger school they tend to get lost,” said Michael Steiner, an English and photojournalism teacher at the academy. “They get over a lot of their inhibitions about speaking in class [here]…by the time they leave here, it’s almost as if they’re a different person.”

Tabano said the average age upon graduation is either 19 or 20, and a small amount of students graduate at 21. After receiving their high school diploma, 60 percent of students go to a city or state college, 30 percent go straight into the workforce and ten percent go into the military.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that a high school diploma can change lives,” said Tabano. The academy has recently called alumni to ask for participation in an upcoming school fundraiser. “No one [we called] was lost,” Tabano said. “It’s just been a revelation to us. We’ve changed lives.”

Aarondell Lowery started at the academy in June 2007 and graduated this year. The Bronx resident dropped out of three different high schools before coming to the Wildcat Academy.

“None of the schools fit with me,” he said. “I had even started working for awhile. I was kind of content with where I was but I knew I could do better.”

Lowery’s said his real “wake-up call” happened while he was working as a supervisor at Subway. Eighteen at the time, Lowery was dating three different girls. While receiving his paycheck one day, he realized, “If one of these girls became pregnant, I might as well just hand my check over. That was really a wake-up call for me.”

His brother, a graduate of the academy, introduced it to Lowery. Making a decision to leave his past behind, Lowery decided to give school – and himself – one more chance at a diploma.

“I haven’t done the whole gang thing, but I’ve chilled with them,” he said. “But I’m done with that. I’m here to do better.”

“Our students are a lot like the ‘Freedom Writers,’” Steiner said, referring to the book and movie about teens who used writing to help overcome their struggles. “They’ve had to struggle against gang violence and what’s in their neighborhoods.”

At the academy, Lowery said teachers challenge him at his level, making sure he learns. Because he is especially good at English, Lowery said his teacher, Steiner, assigns him 1,500-word papers when most of the class is only writing 750 words.

“I make the work harder for [Aarondell], otherwise he’s not challenged,” said Steiner, who varies homework for students across the board.

“The more advanced students can also read another book at home,” he said, “[and] I can give work that’s more challenging – not just intellectually but philosophically.”

Students and staff said the academy’s atmosphere is also different from other schools’.

“Something unique to this place is that people don’t make fun of each other here,” Tabano said. “They police themselves…there are some students who are obviously gay but that’s just not an issue.”

Lowery agrees, “I can’t really say that this is really a school – it’s really a family.”

But Lowery feels the school has given him and his peers more than just an education.

“The school is what you make it,” he said. “If you wanna get your stuff together they’ll help you – and in a timely manner.”

After being kicked out of his mother’s house during the year, Lowery went to the adults at school, who provided him with information about shelters and food shelves.

His academy internship at POTS, or Part of the Solution, was also more than willing to help. The organization provides low-income individuals two hot meals on weekdays, shower services, clothing services, haircuts and a mailroom.

POTS is one of 75 different work sites that participates in the academy’s pilot internship program, whose goal is to provide students with real-world experiences. All students are required to participate in the program, but they must individually apply and be accepted to each work site.

After acceptance, the student then switches between school and work every other week.

Students start at a small stipend of $40 weekly, but it is made clear to students that the primary incentive to participate in internships is to gain experience and not to earn money. Therefore, the school adjusts a student’s weekly stipend based on their performance. Students who perform well in school, have perfect attendance and receive good reviews from their work supervisor receive stipend raises. Poor attendance, tardiness and poor behavior can warrant a stipend reduction. The maximum stipend amount is $100 per week and there is no stipend minimum.

Most internship sites ask students to do clerical work or become teacher aides, but a few interesting work sites allow students to experience working at a hair salon, teaching dance or peer mediating. The school’s centerpiece culinary program has also helped students obtain scholarships to attend New York City College of Technology and the Careers through Culinary Arts Program.

Other “premium” internships are only granted to students who have completed internships in the past and have shown themselves to be successful on site and in school. These internships include worksites at the New York Aquarium as well as state and city government offices including Assemblymember Naomi Rivera of the Bronx.

Lowery worked in the culinary program at the Bronx campus before interning at POTS, only to find that cooking isn’t his passion. But his emersion in a nonprofit such as POTS has shaped his future outlook.

“I want to give back, open the nonprofits that helped me,” he said. “I wanna put myself in a better position and be successful.”

Lowery will be attending the Lincoln Technical Trade School this fall (“My orientation is on the Aug. 22!”) and wants to finish his B.A. at DeVry University. Eventually, he wants to open up his own business.

But the academy’s work hasn’t only affected Lowery.

“In today’s world it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important,” Steiner said. “Teaching here has helped me refocus my values to that helping people is more important than making a lot of money.”

Steiner, a graduate of Tuff’s University, has taught at the academy for ten out of his 18 years in education.

“I had a good education and I was lucky,” he said. “So I’m sharing what I know with them.”

What has been most valuable to Steiner, however, is something he sees at the academy on a regular basis.

“People can change for the better,” he said.