First Person

When My School Failed, Nelson Mandela Re-Inspired Me

Jeniffer Montano, who graduated from Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School in 2009(?), met Nelson Mandela in South Africa after winning a writing contest sponsored by the Mandela Foundation in partnership with the Department of Education.
Jeniffer Montano, who graduated from Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School in 2009, met Nelson Mandela in South Africa after winning a writing contest sponsored by the Mandela Foundation in partnership with the Department of Education.

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and Mandela Day, celebrated worldwide, GothamSchools is collecting tales from New York City schools about the former president of South Africa. Jeniffer Montano met Mandela in South Africa in 2009 when she attended Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School.

Since I was a little girl, I have always had a desire to change the world. I wasn’t sure how, but I just knew I wanted to leave this world a bit better than it was before I entered it. I idolized people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. These people dedicated their lives to helping others.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Schools are the primary source of education. Teachers and staff are the ones that dispense this powerful weapon. So, what happens when kids like me learn to define education by the metal detectors they must walk through to enter school, or by the teachers who do not care or by the guidance counselor who tells them to drop out because they are not “school material”? If education is one of the most powerful weapons in the world, then the type of education I received is closing the door to change. It is destroying potential leaders and reformers. It is breaking down and destroying our future Nelson Mandelas.

I live in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx where violence and drugs are a part of daily life. I live in a place where hopelessness fills the hearts of most, and our schools are a reflection of this.  My dreams of changing the world were slowly shattered as I moved through the public school system.  By the time I got to Dewitt Clinton High School I had completely lost sight of my dream. I looked around me and started to understand the message that was being sent. You are nobody and therefore you will forever be nobody.

By the time I got to my junior year I had completely given up. My average was about a 55.8 and I had been absent for two months straight without anyone noticing. I was ready to drop out. Before I made my decision I went to my guidance counselor. I was hoping to find words of encouragement and motivation. Instead, I was told to drop out and get my GED. The guidance counselor said that I just wasn’t made for school.

I was now set on proving him wrong. How dare he tell me that I was the problem? How dare he tell me that I couldn’t make it?  I would make it! I would be someone! And he would have to eat his words.

I decided to transfer to another school, Jill Chaifetz Transfer High School. Once I found myself in a nurturing environment, everything changed. Before I had been told I wasn’t school material, and now I was now an honor roll student. However, while I was striving academically, surviving school took up so much of me that I had completely forgotten about my dream. Then one day my mom told me about a writing contest.  My first reaction was, ‘No way, I will never win,’ but Mom persisted until she finally convinced me to submit a piece. On March 27, 2009, I uploaded my thirteen-page essay and submitted it to the Nelson Mandela Legacy Contest.

When I got the call a month later that I was one of 12 winners, I was shocked. A few weeks later I found myself on a plane headed to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela — that trip would change my life forever.

It was a cool June day and I was standing in front of a wooden door frame waiting to be called into the room. As I entered the room I was blinded by flashing lights. Photographs and videos were being taken of me as I walked toward this majestic-looking being who was sitting on the other side of the room. I made my way over to him and sat down next to him. He extended his hand and I shook it. As my hand touched his, my stomach jumped and goose-bumps over took my body. I was in awe.

He then asked me in a gentle voice, “What is your name?”

“Jeniffer Montano,” I said.

“Nice to meet you, Jeniffer Montano,” he replied.

I was speechless. All I could do was stare at him and try to hold back the tears. Nelson Mandela had just said my name. Nelson Mandela, the man who most of us only read about in our textbooks. Nelson Mandela, the man who gave his life and freedom to free a nation. Nelson Mandela, the man, the leader, the hero, had, for a brief moment, acknowledged me. That simple handshake changed my whole life. If I could do something worthy enough to be placed in front of Mandela, then surely I could achieve anything.

This was when my dream came back into focus. I thought about how I was going to change the world and then it hit me — education. Education truly is a powerful weapon. I almost didn’t make it because I saw no hope in education. After my trip to South Africa I decided to dedicate my life to helping kids find and build their dreams through a good education. I decided to pursue a career in teaching.

I am currently attending the City College of New York, where I am pursuing a degree in secondary education. I want to become an English teacher.  I want to use my degree to help assure that all our future leaders understand that no matter where they are from, they can make it. I want to assure them that no one ever thinks that there is no way out. I want to assure that no kid ever has to hear that they are the problem, that they are not school material. I want assure that education is truly held up and acknowledged as one of the most “powerful weapons” in the world. For so long I was lost, I was unable to find my way, and I was unable to give my dream a platform. But a simple handshake changed that. I want to do for others what that handshake did for me: help them keep hope alive and help them see the greatness in themselves.

Thank you, Madiba.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.