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How a Brownsville School Helps At-Risk Students Get to College

By Amy Zimmer | November 12, 2015 7:37am
 Monei Thompson at graduation in June from Brownsville's Brooklyn Democracy Academy with her advocate counselor Tashawnee Guarriello.
Monei Thompson at graduation in June from Brownsville's Brooklyn Democracy Academy with her advocate counselor Tashawnee Guarriello.
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Christine Han

BROOKLYN — The odds of going to college were stacked against Monei Thompson.

The Brownsville teenager had two babies before the age of 16 and dropped out of school after ninth grade. Few people, including her mom — who didn’t make it past 10th grade — believed Thompson would get a high school diploma.

She is proving her naysayers wrong. Three years ago she enrolled in Brownsville’s Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a transfer school for under-credited and overage students. She graduated in June with a B-plus average, deciding to pursue a college degree in something involving children and medicine.

But first, she needed the college application fee.

For students like Thompson, whose families live paycheck to paycheck — or even without paychecks — the application fee can be a significant burden.  

Fortunately, Thompson’s school, which is run by the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA) in partnership with the Department of Education, helped her cover the cost. The JCCA is now trying to help upcoming grads with a crowdfunding campaign to cover college application fees. The campaign has raised more than $3,700 out of its $10,000 goal.

“They are doing fantastically at this school,” said Ron Richter, JCCA’s CEO and former commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, noting that 32 of the 56 graduates from last year are now in college.

“For many of them, they are the first high school graduates in their family. So college becomes a possibility,” he said.

“We want it to be a sure thing.”

The application fee is only the tip of the iceberg, Richter acknowledged. They also help students pursue scholarship opportunities and sometimes figure out ways to support their households if going to school removes earnings from their families.

“The families aren’t necessarily supportive of the students [going to college], not because they don’t want them to be successful, but they need to get money for food and rent,” Richter said.

“So, for our kids in Brownsville, we have to provide the guidance: What can we do to help you and your family? How can we help your mom and possibly your children?”

The answer is that the long-term earning power of having a degree far outweighs the short-term paycheck from going straight into the workforce, he said.

The weekly median income for someone without a high school diploma is $448. That rises to more than $668 a week for a high school graduate and $1,193 a week for those with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to Labor Bureau statistics.

Brooklyn Democracy’s director works hard to build ties to other community-based organizations and is continually in touch with the probation and police department since many are court-involved youth, Richter said.

She has clothing and hygiene products for students, and lets kids shower at school if they need to.

“We are not some island in the heart of Brownsville but part of the fabric of the community,” Richter said.

Thompson preferred the small community of the 200-student school than her first high school, Murry Bergtraum, a notoriously troubled facility in Chinatown where she felt lost in the crowd.

“You couldn’t connect with anyone there. If you were falling behind, you were falling behind,” she said.

And she received little encouragement from friends or relatives.

“My family was like, ‘She got pregnant so young.’ And they didn’t want anything to do with me,” said Thompson, now 19 with daughters who are 6 and 4 years old.

After being out of school for a year, she was “bored” and decided to give it another go at the Brooklyn Democracy Academy.

Though she was “falling off” at the start and soon stopped going for a month, she was able to feel some sense of “motivation and ambition” after the constant prodding of her “advocate counselor,” Tashawnee Guarriello.

As her title suggests, Guarriello is more than a guidance counselor.

She was relentless. She called Thompson daily and made frequent home visits when the teen stopped coming to class.

“I continued to remind her about her children and that making improvements in her life improved their life,” said Guarriello. “If her circumstance improved, their circumstance improved.”

Guarriello still helps Thompson, going with her for a recent job interview and helping her figure out which of the five colleges that accepted her she should enroll in this January.

Guarriello works with roughly 35 students currently enrolled at Brooklyn Democracy.

“A typical day for me is making calls to wake them up and then keeping them here during the day, policing the halls,” she said.

She also often acts as a mediator, especially for students who are in rival gangs.

“We have those kinds of big issues,” she said. “I’m reminding the young people why they’re here and what their goals are."