To return to Brooklyn to open a high school, Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño had to make peace with her past.
She remembers the New York City borough as the place where relatives abused her as a young girl, where she lived with her alcoholic mother in a shelter, where she would have done anything to escape. When she finally did get out as a teenager, she vowed never to return.
At age 18, she was pregnant with her second baby when she arrived upstate for college. She went on to marry, earn two degrees and launch a career as an English teacher and school administrator — only to watch her first-born son sucked up by the streets in Albany.
He dropped out of high school in his freshman year. At 21, he was shot. He survived, only to be arrested on gun possession and drug charges. He's 26 now, serving a seven-year prison sentence.
A few years ago, Jarvis-Cedeño scaled back her career to care for her husband, who suffers from lung cancer. But when an opportunity came her way to help kids in her old community, she began to reconsider that vow she had made a quarter-century ago.
At first she thought she couldn't bear to revisit so much heartache in Brooklyn. Yet as she read the horrific crime statistics for the area, she saw the chance to prevent teenagers in her hometown from following her son's path.
So at 43, she is the founding principal of a charter high school that opened this fall in Brownsville, an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood adjacent to where she grew up in East New York. Of all the educators in all the cities trying to get school right for students at risk, she brings the rare vantage point of someone who has learned not only from professional mistakes but tragic personal ones as well.
And she's opening herself to be vulnerable again. As the Obama administration calls on schools to stop obsessing over standardized tests, Brooklyn Ascend High is rolling out a liberal arts curriculum that promotes critical thinking over exam prep.
Jarvis-Cedeño believes such an approach could have made the difference for her son Josef, along with other key attributes of the school's design: an unconventional discipline and character-building system, stellar teachers and a beautiful building where every student is well-known.
"The brown boys like my son, they need a different future than the one he had," Jarvis-Cedeño said. She's half Puerto Rican and half Cuban, with wavy hair and glasses and quick to offer a smile or a hug. Her demeanor is more subdued than the ebullient teachers on her staff, but as she explained to students at orientation, "I'm fired up on the inside."
She offers the 66 black and Latino ninth-graders in her first class a lesson: You can't run away from your problems, but you can shape a different destiny.
Those students — 33 boys and 33 girls — are the same age Josef was when she saw his path to destruction become irreversible. She wishes she hadn't delayed in pulling him out of public school when he started clashing with teachers who branded him a failure. (Her younger son attended parochial school, starting in first grade.)
Josef never learned to think for himself, she says, so it was all too easy for him to be lured into a gang.
Focus on Responsibility
Ascend, the first high school in a small, privately run network of charters, has a different mission than many similar institutions.
High-scoring urban charters often focus on strict discipline and emphasize preparation for, and scoring well on, state tests. Numerous themed high schools in New York City and other urban districts around the country prepare students for specific career paths in fields where there will likely be postsecondary jobs.
Ascend is designed to give teenagers the chance to do anything. Rather than rushing to suspend them, the school requires students to take responsibility for their actions. They attend a daily advisory session to build relationships with faculty and defuse problems before they escalate. There are also thrice-weekly civic reflections seminars.
The school has adopted an internationally recognized disciplinary system that's proven to reduce misbehavior. During an orientation on the program for students, Jarvis-Cedeño asked for "a few brave souls" to share things they'd done to harm others at previous schools.
"We're not going to hold that against you," she said. "It's in the past."
One boy told of getting in a fight and telling off an administrator. A second said he was suspended after speaking negatively about a teacher.
"Do you think that's fair, how the adults handled you?" she asked.
"No," the second boy replied. "I missed out on school."
She nodded, all too knowingly. When Josef was in seventh grade, he was assigned to a class of students with disciplinary problems at the public junior high. Then, finally, she enrolled him in parochial school, but he was quickly expelled after clashing with a nun.
She tried boarding school, but he was kicked out after cursing at a teacher. At that point,"it was over," she said. "The experience with failure, it never left."
When Jarvis-Cedeño was young, she dreaded attending the public high school in East New York, notorious at the time for its violence. She was able to use her father's address on Manhattan's Upper East Side to enroll in a safer school there. Her father insisted that she apply herself to get into college no matter how hard life was, even after she became a teen mom.
Ascend students, who were chosen in a lottery with seven applicants for every spot, will undoubtedly have advantages over their peers in struggling neighborhood institutions.
The Ascend network's leaders believe those advantages start with appearances. This school's physical space rivals that of an elite private academy. It occupies the sixth floor of a beautifully restored historic theater that now houses three Ascend schools.
Beyond that, Jarvis-Cedeño spent most of her budget hiring accomplished, experienced teachers, in line with research suggesting that high-quality teachers are perhaps the most important ingredient in closing the achievement gap.
Will that be enough to give students the kind of life she dreamed of when she was growing up in Brooklyn?
Ascend faces plenty of challenges. About half of the students came from an Ascend middle school, and yet they are all over the map academically.
Most are further behind than Jarvis-Cedeño and her staff anticipated, and in the first months teachers say they have had to slow the pace of their lessons way down.
What's more, the discipline model — which emphasizes consequences over suspension — has been an adjustment. Teachers spend class time on reflective circles when discipline problems occur (relatively infrequently so far), but less than they did in the first weeks of school.
Some students are coping with trauma, but Jarvis-Cedeño says she can't afford to hire a counselor this year.
Still, she preferred to start a school with a small class and budget than to admit more students and have more money. (Public school funding is based on enrollment, so Ascend's budget will grow as it adds a new ninth-grade class each year.)
Over the summer, every family had a personal meeting with her, or with a second administrator she brought on to help oversee instruction and student services, and to troubleshoot where needed.
Her office goes unused; instead, she parks herself and a laptop at a student desk in the hall outside the school's four classrooms. There, she can keep tabs on everything.
These choices partly stem from her experience in 2009, helping to start an all-girls charter school in Albany with ninth- and 10th-graders. Bad habits among the older students were too deeply entrenched, she said, and she didn't sufficiently sweat the small stuff, like procedures to get everyone to class in an orderly fashion. She also says she struggled to answer to a board of directors that did not provide necessary support, and was never able to establish the culture or performance she wanted. Though the school is still open, she left after four years.
In 2013, Jarvis-Cedeño moved back to the Bronx when her husband became ill. She took a less-demanding position in mid-level administration at a Bronx charter school, but she longed to make a bigger impact. Then a colleague she respected left to design Ascend's high school. Impressed by Jarvis-Cedeño's work ethic, humility and ability to build trust easily, she urged her to come along.
Jarvis-Cedeño said that in making her decision she was moved by a TED talk. It was given by a defense attorney for death-row inmates, about how a nurturing environment from the womb through high school could prevent his clients from ending up where they do.
She's seen first-hand how high school can be the end of the line. Yet for her own son, she prays the future will still change course.
Josef Jarvis is tentatively scheduled for release in September from federal prison in Pennsylvania. He was transferred this weekend from a maximum-security facility to one that prepares inmates to return to society. While opportunities for ex-offenders are limited and recidivism is rampant, Jarvis-Cedeño is hopeful, based on her son's reflective emails, that he is ready for a new chapter.
"Every mother wants to believe her child has changed," she said.
As she can attest, the past is always with you, but it's never too late to go home and start again.
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