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Transitions: New Beginnings and Lasting Memories at Bread & Roses

When school reopens in fall, most high school sophomores around the city will be thrilled to see their friends and familiar faces again. But Jeremy Rivera and his friends are likely to be in very different places. For them, the excitement comes now – in looking for better schools to transfer to.

Jeremy Rivera outside Bread & Roses

Ninth grader Jeremy Rivera at the entrance to Bread & Roses. He wants to transfer out. (Photo by Joanna Seow / School Stories)

Jeremy, 16, is among the nearly 160 students to be the  last ninth graders at Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School in Harlem.

The Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy voted in March to phase out the school, meaning no new students can be admitted and the school will lose a grade each year until closing completely in 2015. In its place will be a new district secondary school.

“I think everyone’s kind of a little excited to transfer,” Jeremy said after school one day, sitting in a near-empty classroom where a teacher was giving an impromptu science lesson on hand sanitizers. He is too, having his sights set on a couple of private schools.

With many of his friends also applying to transfer, sticking around does not hold much appeal. “I don’t want to stay another year because everyone I know is leaving. It’s a little depressing,” he admitted. But, he said, he would be sad to leave the teachers at Bread & Roses, whom he really likes. “If I could take my teachers with me, I would.”

Jeremy’s parents like Bread & Roses because he is doing better academically than he was at his previous junior high school, but they are supportive of whatever decision he makes. “They want me to feel happy at the school I’m in,” he said, so he wants to find a school that fits him better.

“We left the decision up to him,” said his father, Victor Rivera, 49. “Since he’s already 16, we’re treating him like an adult and letting him look for new schools and pick the school.”

Jeremy initially chose Fordham Preparatory School, a Jesuit boys’ school in the Bronx with a lot of clubs and sports that he is interested in like volleyball and track. He also felt that he would fit in more there, because at Bread & Roses he thinks he stands as a more quiet and reserved student, compared to some of his schoolmates who he sees as “kind of rowdy”.

He decided to submit the public school transfer application just in case he was not accepted at Fordham Prep.

By April 22, however, Jeremy had missed the application deadline for transferring to another public school, so private school seems the only option left. The previous Friday, the day the applications were due along with his transcripts, he left the application at home. He did not get around to mailing it himself because he was waiting for his mother to go through the personal information section with him to make sure he had filled it up correctly.

It was not a difficult form to fill up, he said, “but I was just lazy.”

He also found out from his friend that his class average, in the 70s, was too low for Fordham Prep’s cutoff. The school also requires a good attendance record, something he is sorely lacking, according to his Living Environments teacher, Pooja Bhaskar.

“How did the lesson on vaccinations help you learn, Jeremy?” She asked one day after class, before correcting herself: “Oh wait, maybe you weren’t there that day.”

Poor performance and attendance rates are some of the reasons given for the decision to phase-out Bread & Roses. The school received an F in the Department of Education’s Progress Report for 2012, with a below-average attendance rate of 76 percent.

Since Fordham Prep is no longer an option, Jeremy now aspires to attend All Hallows High School, a Catholic boys school near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx that one of his friends currently attends. He was impressed by their academics and the good experience he had while taking Saturday classes there earlier in the school year.

Besides being very serious about grades, he said, the school has strict rules. “I have some blond hair, they’re going to tell me to dye it back and cut my hair shorter,” he added, pointing to his chin-length hair tucked away inside a blue beanie.

Another reason he felt drawn to the school was the friendly environment. “At the end of the day the principal and assistant principal stand at the door saying bye to everyone and calling them by name,” he said. He had seen this while waiting for his friend to come out of the school.

Jeremy’s mother, Aydeli Acevedo, 47, is happy for him to transfer out, mainly because of the possible loss of teaching staff at Bread & Roses. “Him being close to his teachers, I don’t want him to get a teacher he doesn’t like,” she said. “That’s going to be a problem in the future.”

The family lives in East Tremont in the Bronx. Jeremy is the youngest of three children; he has a brother, Johnathan, 25, and sister, Stephanie, 22. Jeremy’s sister works two jobs to support herself, and the rest of the family is supported by various disability checks, as both parents were hurt in their previous jobs. His mother was also diagnosed with cancer two years ago and is wheelchair-bound.

One of the problems they will face is how to foot the yearly tuition of nearly $6,000. Jeremy said that All Hallows has financial aid options, which the family will look into.

“The main consideration would be the cost,” Acevedo said. “As long as it’s a good school and, if it’s going to be a private school, if I can afford it, I don’t mind him going.”

Jeremy’s next steps will be to seriously discuss the move with his father. Then, they will need to make an appointment with the school for an interview, and take a placement test to determine which track of classes Jeremy will be in.

Freshmen looking to move to a different school had two options to apply, said Sabrina Cochran, the guidance counselor for ninth and 11th graders at Bread & Roses. The regular transfer cycle for New York City public schools was underway, so Cochran was given applications for the students that were due on April 12. Because the school is being phased out, all students not graduating this year were also sent application packets under the New York State Education Department’s Public School Choice Program. The program is meant to give students in phase-out schools and low-performing schools marked Priority or Focus the opportunity to request a transfer to a higher performing school. It is the first year that all students in phase-out schools are eligible; previously only those in certain schools identified by the State could apply. These applications were due April 19.

Cochran said while about seven freshmen completed the transfer applications she gave out, around 50 said they sent the applications from home. “I encouraged them to use that one because it has more schools to choose from,” she said.

There was an earlier round of transfers last December, during which 15 freshmen applied. Three of them were selected to schools. At the time, Cochran had already been doing the rounds, talking to students and encouraging them to send in applications. “Especially the ones that have good grades, I was trying to give them better options,” she said, such as more AP classes. At Bread & Roses, some of the students who have passed their Regents exams are not able to take higher-level classes in math because the school does not offer them.

But it was only during this second round that more students, like Jeremy, decided to switch schools. “Most of us didn’t want to transfer in round one because no one really knew the school was going to phase out,” he said. “There were little rumors, ‘Oh the school might get phased out’, but no one really paid attention. Now everyone wants to transfer.”

Students have been coming into Cochran’s office to talk about transferring. They have different reasons for leaving. Some realized that the school did not have enough of what they wanted, such as sports activities; others were just leaving because the school is closing.

“I guess they were given the opportunity to transfer to better schools, I guess they were going for that,” Cochran said.

Judging by all the excitement about transfers, next year’s sophomores may be down to just a couple of classrooms of students. One of them may be Nakia Watson, 15. While many of her classmates have their sights set on greener pastures, she has decided to stay put. She says that she does not really understand the impact the phase-out will have on her school experience.

Nakia Watson at Bread & Roses

Ninth grader Nakia Watson in her science classroom at Bread & Roses. Her mother wants her to transfer out, but she wants to stay. (Photo by Joanna Seow / School Stories)

“The best thing about this school is the staff,” Nakia said after school, on a rare day when she did not have to pick up her nine-year-old sister from her school. “They do one-on-one with the students. If I need help with a math problem [in class], my teacher will come right up to me and explain the problem.”

She also enjoys the friendships she has formed with other students, although some of her friends are being made to transfer out by their parents.

Nakia said she although is a little worried about the possibility that some of her teachers will leave next year, she still wants to stay. She has been doing well and thinks she can accomplish a lot at the school.

“I haven’t really been looking for other schools because I have my mind set on staying here,” she said.

Her mother, however, has a different plan for her.

“If it’s phasing out that means that it’s not going to be as strong as I want it to be for her,” Katrina Simmons, 45, said, of Bread & Roses. “I’m trying my best to do what I can now before it gets too late and she is stuck there.”

That entails exploring other options in the neighborhood. Simmons, who works in retail, said that she had been receiving letters from other high schools in Harlem, where she lives with her two daughters. One of the schools was Democracy Prep Charter High School, which sent an application form to the family’s home. Simmons filled out the form for Nakia and mailed it back.

She has been especially worried after meeting with one of Nakia’s teachers at a Bread & Roses parent-teacher conference, where the teacher advised her to start looking for other options. Simmons said the teacher told her that some of the staff and students would be leaving, and the students might lose out on the one-on-one tutoring they have been enjoying.

The single mother of two is adamant that whatever school Nakia goes to will be a good school, and spends time researching potential schools’ academics online. “I don’t want it to be another school that’s phasing out,” she said. “It’s not good for a student like that to be getting transferred. Psychologically it’s not good because there are a lot of transitions going on.”

At the end of the day, even though Simmons knows her daughter wants to stay on at Bread & Roses and not be separated from the familiar friends and teachers, she feels that as a parent, she has to do what she thinks is best.

“If Nakia gets a phone call from any of the schools I’ve applied to, then she’s going to go,” Simmons said. “I’m the parent, what I say goes.

“I’m not saying it in a mean way, all I want is what is best for my child. It’s about her education and getting her the best education she can get.”

Even though she herself does not have a college background, she believes it is getting harder and harder to succeed without one. “I just don’t want her to struggle,” she said. “I’m a single mom. I’m not saying I’m struggling, but I don’t want her to encounter what I’ve been through.

“When you’re a mother you just want the best for your children.”

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