First Person

What Could Have Kept My Friends In School

This piece originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by NYC teens, and is reprinted in collaboration with Youth Communication. Christopher Alcine wrote it after graduating from John Adams High School in Queens this June. He just started his freshman year at Syracuse University.

Absenteeism is a real problem in New York City public schools. Just look at the numbers — or look at my friends.

In New York City, at least one in four students is chronically absent from school each year. Chronically absent means missing school 20 or more days in out of a 180-day school year, which is just over 10 percent of the time. I know this information because I read a report written by the Youth Justice Board, an after-school program for New York City teens that gives youth a voice in the policies affecting them, and interviewed a student and an adult involved in the research.

I also know the effects of absenteeism from my own experience as a student at John Adams High School in Queens, where the dropout rate is slightly above the city average, and from observing my friends. When I read the list of the possible solutions the Youth Justice Board proposed to deal with chronic absenteeism, I thought of my own high school and what might have worked there.

Why students miss school

Before coming up with ideas for solutions, the Youth Justice Board tackled the question “Why are so many teens missing school?” and found that attendance issues run deeper than a general lack of motivation. The things that cause students to skip school can be categorized as push or pull factors. Push factors are the things about school that make students not want to attend, such as poor facilities, unsupportive staff, safety concerns, and bullying. Pull factors are things outside of school like homelessness or foster care situation that deter students from coming to school. (Gangs were categorized as both push and pull factors because gang activity can occur inside or outside of school.)

After researching these factors, the Youth Justice Board wrote a series of recommendations aimed at the city’s education department and others who work with city students. Here’s my take on some of the YJB’s recommendations:

Recommendation: Help teens draw connections between school and their future early in their schooling.

This resonates because a lot of my friends and classmates don’t think school is that important. They do homework when it’s convenient, and their school day ends long before their last class. It gets hard to see where school will take you when every day is almost the same. But as the YJB recommends, making the connection between school and future success helps motivate students to do well in school.

Recommendation: Examine the impact of security procedures on school attendance.

This has affected me personally. In my high school, we weren’t allowed in the building if our first class was second period but we arrived during first period. Also, we weren’t allowed in the building if we were more than 20 minutes late. The doors were locked and we’d have to stand outside until 10 minutes before the next period started. Students often chose to go home instead of waiting out in the cold or rain. If I was running late, I’d come to school even later to avoid standing outside.

Recommendation: Develop clear, consistent expectations around student confidentiality.

I can especially relate to this recommendation. I’ve been shy and evasive when teachers asked me personal things. I’m not alone. YJB talked to teens and found that “many students felt uncomfortable discussing the reasons behind their absences” with school staff because they never knew if what they said would be kept secret. To develop trust, YJB says school staff should tell kids, upfront, what they can and can’t keep secret. Giving students this heads up is a good way of making students feel less betrayed and cast out.

YJB also says that schools should make sure to provide “safe, private rooms” for kids to discuss their absences with school staff. That could help students feel more comfortable explaining what’s behind their absences, especially if it’s because of a mental health issue, a family problem, or something else that might be hard to talk about publicly.

Recommendation: Use “chronic absenteeism” rather than “truancy” to refer to attendance issues.

I like this idea because the term “chronically absent” doesn’t sound like accusing someone of a felony. In YJB’s report, Evan Elkin of the Vera Institute of Justice is quoted saying that the vocabulary should shift from harsh “kid-blaming” language — such as “truancy” — to softer words that help to provide insight. I agree.

Recommendation: Support parents and foster parents to ensure that they are familiar with the education system and the importance of daily school attendance.

This is the only recommendation I really didn’t agree with. It may be effective to focus efforts on the parents when students are younger, but as a student gets older, attending school becomes more of the student’s choice and less of their parents’ choice. This recommendation may not be as effective for older students as the other recommendations will be. A different recommendation that I think could be more effective at getting kids to come to school is having schools offer more support (like mentoring) to students, especially those who are going through some sort of transition, returning from long absences, or students who have been left back.

Now what?

Reading the recommendations made me wonder what the YJB will do with these recommendations, so I interviewed Malik, one of the teens who worked on the report. (The YJB publishes student authors’ first names only.) He said one way to implement the recommendation about getting teens to see the connection between absenteeism and future success is to have teens write a pamphlet that explains clearly what people lose when they drop out of high school.

I learned from the report If you miss a lot of school, the likelihood that you’ll drop out goes up, which then means the ability to make a decent living is harder. A high school dropout makes, on average, almost $10,000 less per year than a high school graduate.

So I believe that if teens make a pamphlet about what people lose when they drop out of high school, the pamphlet should say something like: You’re going to want money when you’re older. To get money, you need a well-paying job. To get a well-paying job, you need to have gone to college. To get into college, you need to keep your grades up in high school. To keep your grades up, you have to go to school every day.

A pamphlet like that should just cut to the chase. High school students need to know how much is riding on their school attendance.

This piece is reprinted with permission from Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that “helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.”

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.