Hurricane Sandy swept into Lanisha Jessie’s already fragile existence when a tree cracked in two across the street from her Canarsie home. It severed a power line, plunging the high school student’s neighborhood into darkness.
Jessie heard her mother scream as water from Jamaica Bay cascaded into her basement at East 105th Street near Avenue M.
Quickly, the family — Jessie, her mother and her 8-year-old brother — climbed upstairs to her grandparents’ apartment and waited, listening to the howling winds and driving rain. Jessie finally fell asleep on the love seat in their living room.
When she awoke the next day on November 1, her world had changed. The ocean had flooded the entire basement, rising knee-high on the first floor. Jessie’s clothes were destroyed. The family dog, a chihuahua named “Baby,” had survived, but a brand new puppy — only a few months old — had drowned. The bus pass Jessie needed to get to school had floated away. It would be weeks before she’d go to school again, and months before she’d regain the academic momentum she had just begun to build.
At 17, Jessie had hoped for a brighter path when she started classes at Aspirations Diploma Plus High School in East New York last fall. After spending two years at the Catholic, all-girls Saint Joseph High in downtown Brooklyn, she had become enmeshed in the drama of teen politics and had adopted a lackadaisical attitude toward her classes, which she attended only sporadically. “It wasn’t working out for me,” Jessie said of Saint Joseph. “It distracted me. I was more into the drama than my work.”
Counselors at Saint Joseph urged Jessie to look into other schools that would offer more support. Aspirations, one of 50 transfer schools for students 15 to 21 who are under-credited or overage, felt like her last chance. “Since my grades were so low, no other school would take me,” she said. “This was the only option.”
Aspirations sits inside a former sewing machine factory on Herkimer Street near a tangle of elevated subway tracks. Students commonly stroll into class hours late, striding past drug dealers doling out “decks” of heroine at the Broadway Junction subway station, through the metal detectors at the school’s entrance and into classes full of empty seats. Last year, only 32 percent of its 275 students graduated in six years, according to the New York City Department of Education. Attendance averages 65 percent or less, far below the citywide rate of approximately 90 percent.
As a result, teachers and administrators are constantly looking for ways to boost attendance. “We brainstorm at every school leadership meeting,” said history teacher Jeff Kaufman, who has taught at Aspirations since the year after it opened in 2008, replacing the East Brooklyn Congregations high school that the city closed after 14 years. Teachers have tried handing out everything from movie passes to McDonalds gift certificates as rewards for attendance.
But Kaufman said the situation is getting worse, not better. “Now there’s a noticeable trend of the kids, even the good kids, taking one day off each week.”
Principal Shermila Bharat said improving attendance is as much about making school accessible to students as it is about making it appealing. After all, she said, many have trouble scraping together enough money to cover their half of subway or bus fare. Others are too hungry to concentrate. “They haven’t had breakfast,” she said. In 2011, 76 percent of the students were eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Meanwhile, with only 40 percent of students passing the Regents in English and 30 percent in math last year, many are just too far behind to catch up. “We have a number of students whose reading and math levels are not commensurate with what it should be for a high school student,” she said.
So Bharat said teachers do their best to tailor instruction and expectations to each individual student. In one case, a struggling student worked one on one with any math teacher who was available either during class or after school. For another, the principal visited the parents at home in an attempt to convince them how important it was for their son to come to school. Bharat stocks her office with pretzels, cookies, and grape juice — just in case kids haven’t had a chance to eat. At Aspirations, the school’s motto is “Meeting students where they are and equipping them to go where they need to be.”
At first that philosophy seemed to be working for Jessie. She was passing most of her classes, and for the first time in years, she felt free from the girl talk and gossip that overwhelmed her at Saint Joseph. She began bringing cupcakes to school for her teachers and classmates, and dressed in pink and purple to add a splash of color to her daily routine. “That’s just who I am,” she said. “I’m a nice person.” Soon, she was dreaming of graduation, college and becoming a DJ or fashion designer. “I was doing really well.”
Then the hurricane hit and Jessie began to fall behind again. School re-opened a week after the storm overtook the Canarsie coast, but it took longer than that for the local bus and L train to start running. Without a bus pass, the cost of transportation added nearly $5 a day that she didn’t have. Some days she walked the three-plus miles to school. Other days she skipped. But staying home wasn’t any better. There were construction workers everywhere, tearing out sheetrock and traipsing in and out of her bedroom. She felt disorganized and overwhelmed. “It was just too much,” she said.
Jessie emerged from her white-clapboard house on 105th Street early one Thursday in March, swept back her two-tone shoulder-length curls, wrapped her head in a scarf, and closed the door behind her. It was about five months after the hurricane hit and scattered soda bottles that had washed in with the tide still littered the hedges. Inside, workers were replacing walls damaged by mold from the storm. But there was no time for a tour. It was 8:07 a.m. and school started at 8:48. She was running late.
Through the light snow, Jessie noticed a city bus barreling down 105th street and scurried across to catch it. The D103 bus took her to the Number 42 bus, which then took her to the Rockaway Parkway station so she could catch the L train. She grabbed a seat on the subway and checked her iPhone for text messages. Her guidance counselor wanted to know if she’d make it on time. It was 8:28. As the train pulled away from the station, Jessie admitted she was cutting it close.
At 8:45 a.m. Jessie got off the train at Broadway Junction on Van Sinderen Avenue and walked toward Aspirations, making a quick stop at the small shack called “20-20 Car Service” across the street. There, she handed over four quarters and her cell phone for safekeeping. The chancellor does not allow public school students to bring cell phones to school.
Jessie was finally ready. She walked through the front door, placed her book bag on the scanner, stepped through the metal detector and strode toward first period. Her English teacher, Michael Martella, greeted her as she entered the classroom. It was 8:52 and she was four minutes late. Other than the teacher, the class was completely empty.
There are 12 students enrolled in Martella’s class, but he said it’s common for students to skip first period, especially when it’s snowing — or even raining. So Martella abandoned the “Do Now” assignment he had written on the white board (“What are the questions you need to answer when you’re doing a historical reading?”) and focused his attention on Jessie as she crafted an essay in defense of same-sex marriage. Martella stooped over her as she wrote, encouraging her to break her essay into five discrete paragraphs, each anchored by a topic sentence.
By late April, the pink-flowered dogwoods that line Avenue M were in full bloom, and neighbors up and down Jessie’s Canarsie street were out in their yards, repairing siding, fixing cars and applying new coats of paint. Jessie’s grandfather, a lifelong construction worker surveyed the latest renovations, largely funded through the city’s Rapid Repairs program. Outside the house, the lawn had been stripped bare and replaced with a neat layer of topsoil to support new grass. Inside, the house smelled of fresh paint and scented candles. Workers had just finished tearing out the carpet and repairing the walls. Now, there were coppery tiles above the kitchen sink, and wood floors throughout the first floor. Jessie was still sleeping in the living room while workers finished her bedroom in the basement, but she had traded in her air mattress (punctured by the dog) for a big, new sectional. “It’s a lot better,” she said.
In fact, she said a lot of things were improving. Jessie had been attending school consistently for two months now, and her grades were up. Her first trimester at Aspirations, she had received two Fs, two Cs, and two Bs. Now in her third trimester, she had a D, four Bs and an A. Meanwhile, she was making friends on the Step Team, with whom she practiced every day during lunch and after school.
“I’m really close to my Step Team,” she said, adding that people at Aspirations were generally more accepting than the students at her old school. Money was still tight, so she was going without cell phone service for the time being, but she hoped to get a job to help her mother foot the bills. She was constantly checking in at Chipotle and Subway to see if they had openings.
As summer approached, Jessie was still dreaming about a career as a DJ or fashion consultant, but it seemed those dreams would have to wait a bit longer. “I really don’t know when I’m going to graduate. I know it’s going to be in my 20s,” she said, adding, “It’s better to get your diploma than not have one at all.”