Eighth grader Rayshawn Joseph, nicknamed “Master Splinter” after a character from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” remembers the time he was almost kicked out of school.
“I didn’t want to take a practice test,” said Joseph, 17. “I just said I wasn’t going to take it, put my head down and started drawing.” Eventually, Joseph’s sister talked him into taking the test, he said.
This was just months ago before he completed Back on Track, an academic program that helps at-risk youth in danger of dropping out of school. Located at 2318 Atlantic Ave. in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Back on Track gives students ages 7 to 21 the tutoring, discipline and guidance they need to reduce their chances of engaging in criminal activity. Back on Track is just one of 24 ReStart Academies around New York City, which were created to boost academic performance among troubled kids who are failing.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who initiated Back on Track last year, said the program is meant to be a solution to the high levels of truancy and violence in Brownsville.
“Of all the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Brownsville has a serious crime problem,” Hynes said. He hopes Back on Track will be successful enough to bring a community court to make Brownsville a safer neighborhood. “I’m very proud of the fact,” said Hynes about Back on Track. “There aren’t many prosecutors who are doing this.”
Joseph and his class graduated from Back on Track last month.
“It was strict, very strict. But then afterward, I started to get the hang of it,” Joseph said.
Cameron Wood, nicknamed “King Kong” by Joseph and his friends, was also at Back on Track this year. Wood, 16, said the program is so strict that you can’t even get away with dropping a piece of paper.
“They won’t let you leave until someone picks it up,” said Wood, who finished the seventh grade and will be in Back on Track again this fall.
Because they are at a junior high level, Joseph and Wood are part of Back on Track’s ReStart curriculum. In partnership with the Department of Education, ReStart is an intense academic program that helps students ages 13 to 16 who were held back in junior high move on to high school.
School begins at 9:05 a.m. sharp. If students are not on time, a call is made to his or her house. The students, 15 in total, are separated by grade, with eighth graders on the first floor and sixth and seventh graders on the second. All of the standard subjects are offered, including math, English, science and art. Etiquette classes are also required.
Joseph said that before he started Back on Track, he was distracted in school because he was hanging with the wrong crowd. “I was doing the wrong things. I was cutting class, not doing work. I used to be disrespectful to teachers,” he said.
Joseph was recommended for Back on Track by his school principal at P.S./I.S. 298. All Back on Track students are enrolled by referral.
Wood, who went to the same school as Joseph, was on a similar path. “I was running around in the buildings, getting into fights, getting suspended for almost half of the whole school year,” said Wood. Wood was recommended for Back on Track by his school counselor.
Students in Back on Track’s ReStart program are offered one-on-one mental health counseling every week. There’s also daily group counseling with social workers from the district attorney’s office.
“You have to get to the underlying issue. What are some of the dynamics that made them not stay in school, not focus?” said Stacey Michael, Back on Track’s program director. “Some of it is peer pressure, some of them have serious issues at home that haven’t been addressed.”
Michael is also present at each group counseling session. “They know that they can express themselves without being judged,” Michael said.
A year of Back on Track has already made a difference.
“We went from under 50 percent attendance to 85 percent attendance in school,” said Hynes. “So we’ve broken the chronic truancy problem.”
Next school year’s program will expand to 20 students, some of whom will be from Crossroads Juvenile Center, a detention center in Brooklyn.
Joseph is looking forward to going to the ninth grade. “I feel excellent. I feel like I’m going somewhere. I’m on the right path,” said Joseph, who wants to be a scientist when he grows up.
Christopher Henry, nicknamed “Curious George” by Joseph and Wood, also graduated last month. Henry didn’t see himself going to high school before Back on Track.
“It’s way better as opposed to back then,” Henry said. “I see a better high school.” Henry will attend Arts and Media Preparatory Academy in the fall.
As for Wood, he’s happy with the way Back on Track changed how he acts.
“I’ve been doing my work lately,” said Wood. “My parents are proud of me. They always knew that I had it inside of me to do good.”