Jamie and Jovannitza Torres

Neighborhood: Stapleton, Staten Island
Current School: New Dorp High School, New Dorp, Staten Island
First Choice: New Dorp High School, New Dorp, Staten Island

Fourteen-year-old Jovannitza Torres (left) and 15-year-old Jamie Torres (right) hang out with their niece at home in Stapleton, Staten Island.
Fourteen-year-old Jovannitza Torres (left) and 15-year-old Jamie Torres (right) hang out with their niece at home in Stapleton, Staten Island.

The Torres sisters were one and two years old when their mother was shot and murdered in Puerto Rico. The girls don’t remember the incident that has shaped their lives in many ways.

After a protracted custody battle between their maternal grandmother and father, the sisters moved to Staten Island, where they now live with their dad and stepmom in the Stapleton Houses, a city housing project.

A five minute walk away down Warren Street was Intermediate School 49, their nondescript school, which was trying to shake off its violent reputation when the girls attended.

When it came to considering high schools, Jamie, 15, and Jovannitza, 14, only listed two neighboring schools: New Dorp High School and Tottenville High School on Staten Island. It was important for the sisters to remain together and avoid a lengthy commute to Manhattan or Brooklyn. Since Jamie’s education in Puerto Rico was interrupted, the sisters have enrolled in the same year since 3rd grade, despite their age difference.

Last year, both girls were admitted to New Dorp High School, a zoned school located 15 minutes from their apartment. The large school serving 9th through 12th graders guarantees admission to Staten Island residents. The school is divided into eight small learning communities and is known for a strong academic reputation and relatively high graduation rate at 78 percent. Jamie wanted to attend the Law Institute at New Dorp and Jovannitza lobbied to study forensic science, neither got their choice. Instead, they were assigned to the Future Teachers’ Academy where they take classes on child development and psychology.

Their stepmom, Judy Deleon, keeps close tabs on the girls’ attendance and grades through an app on her phone. Deleon, who grew up in New York City and works on Staten Island as a home care nurse, constantly encourages her stepdaughters to strive for college. “They are going to college. It’s kind of not a choice,” she said.

New Dorp High School is one of a handful of schools in New York City where the majority of its almost 3,000 students, 51 percent, is white. Hispanic students are the second largest demographic and make up 27 percent of the student body.

For 14-year-old Jovannitza, the transition to high school was relatively smooth. For 15-year-old Jamie, the racial segregation has taken a toll.

In March, Jamie tried out for the softball team but didn’t make the cut. All of the students who were selected to play on the team were white, according to Jamie.

“The school is too white,” she said. “The school is segregated.”

While Jamie has considered transferring to a different high school, the guidance counselors at New Dorp advised against it, saying 10th grade is a difficult year to transfer. Jamie receives speech therapy from her high school and attends private tutoring through a Kumon center. She hopes to become an FBI agent when she grows up.

“As long as I’m in the field putting bad people in jail, it’s good enough for me,” Jamie said. “Because my friends grew up without moms or dads or brothers or sisters because they are outside being killed.”

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