New York City public school students have had a unique set of challenges on the path to graduation this year. Black and Brown, or low-income students have faced unbearable financial situations in some cases due to the pandemic. Things are starting to look up though as one school’s graduation rates go up.

Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH), located in Washington Heights in Manhattan, is a 6th-12th grade middle and high school established by the Black-led nonprofit Community League of the Heights (CLOTH). The students are primarily of Hispanic and Latino backgrounds that stay all seven years at CHAH. The top-ranked public school held this year’s graduation in the street in front of the school to encourage neighbors and community members to attend.

Bronx native Raymond Medina, 17, is the salutatorian, or ranked second highest in his class. “As a school in Washington Heights, the culture is definitely there. It’s unbeatable,” said Medina. “There’s a community here and it makes it so easy to reach out to your teachers and make sure you succeed in order to graduate.”

Medina was hyped about attending his graduation in person on June 24. He said his parents were equally excited even though they didn’t fully understand everything that’s going on because of the language barrier. Both of his parents are from the Dominican Republic. His father is a cab driver and his mom is a nail tech, he said.

Medina is set to get $70,000 in scholarships and has decided to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. He said he’s really interested in robotics and cars which stems from a curiosity he cultivated as a kid. He considered the back and forth between in-person and remote classes “absurd” but the school did a good job of making sure students showed up. He’s planning on going to the University of Wisconsin.

CHAH high school’s graduation rate is 95% in 2022, up from the city average of 81% and state average of 86% last year. This year’s graduating class had about 102 students.

“We believe in public schools,” said Executive Director of CLOTH Yvonne Stennett. “That if you resource them well, if you provide both teachers, administration and students with the right type of learning environment, that it succeeds. And if you attach it strongly to the community and the community is responsible to the school and [vice versa] you will get good results.”

It’s possible that graduation rates may have spiked across New York City since the statewide Regents Exams were mostly canceled or standards were relaxed for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students were just required to pass the corresponding class instead, said Spectrum News.

“The pandemic made it necessary to temporarily change Regents Exam requirements. This change affected this year’s graduation rates, but we can not say to what extent,” State Education Chancellor Betty Rosa told the news outlet.

But Stennett and school leadership lean more on the mission of CHAH as to why rates are so high.

Stennett said “wrap-around services” and supporting the school is a top priority for the nonprofit. The offices are even located inside the school, said Stennett, for a holistic approach to a “community school model.” CLOTH provides housing, a food pantry, vision testing, tele-mental health services, and has a workforce development center available for students and their families. Stennett credits the faculty and administration for keeping the students on track during periods of remote learning and discussing the socio-emotional issues students struggled with.

“In a time when students were disconnected from school,” said CHAH Principal David Falciani, “our school did a tremendous job. A lot of credit goes to the outreach and attendance teams for keeping
our students engaged.”

Falciani said that the community school had one of the highest Google Classroom engagement rates during quarantine. He considers his students and families “incredibly resilient” throughout the pandemic and the last two difficult school years.

School counselor Randy Bowen, who works with 11th and 12th graders at CHAH, said that the best way to provide for students is to get to know them on an individual level. He’s been at CHAH for the last 15 years. Bowen said the pillars of counseling every student are focusing on their college career, academics, and social emotional learning (SEL).

“We get to understand their struggles, their families, where they’re from, who they are,” said Bowen. “Our school was founded on the principle of servicing the kid, the entire child.”
Some of the students are dealing with getting their citizenship this year, taking care of their parents who had COVID, or looking after their siblings while managing school. Others battle food insecurity or attending school from a shelter. Parents, for many whom English is not their native language, often struggle with technology or getting information about their children without translations, said Bowen.

“Graduation is the thing that’s going to uplift the families,” said Bowen. “A lot of our students are first generation low-income students, so having them graduate provides them with options that their parents may not have necessarily had that can change the dynamics of their living situation.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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