BROWNSVILLE — Principal Yvette Baxter-Sweet, who has led Passages Academy since the fall of 2015, says every day is a race against time to make sure children caught in the criminal justice system stay on track with their studies.
“I’ll be honest with you, the biggest challenge is we just don’t have them long enough,” she said. "In a traditional school setting you have your kids from September to June, but time is not on our side.”
Founded in 1998, Passages Academy has about 800 students cycle through its eight sites, which are scattered across four boroughs and Westchester each year, according to a Department of Education spokeswoman. The students, who are either making their way through court or serving their sentences at youth detention facilities, are some of the most vulnerable children in the city. Many have documented behavioral issues, problems at home, and in some cases, long absences from formal education, and they come to the school in the middle of what can be a deeply upsetting period in their life.
“You’ve been arrested, you’ve been accused of a crime whether you’ve done it or not done it," Baxter-Sweet said. "You’re away from home, you’re not with your parents. It’s just horrible.”
Many of students are only at a Passages site for a month or less. Baxter-Sweet said the school's primary mission is to reorient students and get them on track to continue their education once they’re back in a more traditional classroom setting.
DNAinfo New York sat down with Baxter-Sweet at the Passages Academy Crossroads facility in Brownsville to discuss the challenges and rewards of working with a vulnerable student population. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Tell me about yourself and your background in education.
I started out as an elementary school teacher. I taught first grade, second grade, fourth grade, and I did a year in kindergarten as well. From there, I started working as a literacy coach, and I did that for about five years in different settings.
So I’ve been in education for about 17 or 18 years now. Prior to coming to Passages Academy I worked at East River Academy on Rikers Island, where I was assistant principal for about 3 1/2 years.
How did you make the jump to working with kids in the criminal justice system?
I don’t really see it as making a jump. With the elementary-school background, I have a keen understanding of developing reading skills, developing mathematical skills, and so then looking at instruction and trying to break it down and make it fit the need of the student. Because high school teachers, they teach English language arts, or they teach history, or they teach algebra or geometry, they’re focusing on the content, and if your kids are grade-level, then they won’t need you to differentiate, they won’t need you to structure the lesson for entry points.
But if your kids are not grade-level, and they’ve had big gaps in being in school for a year or two years, then they’re going to need foundational skills. It was just bringing the skills I already had and helping to support teachers to structure the curriculum to best support the students.
What are some of the challenges of working with kids who are in the criminal justice system?
Our biggest challenge is being able to assess a student quickly, see what their needs are, then adjust the curriculum, make sure they have entry points. So the challenge is always time. That’s the piece that’s not on our side.
In every classroom [in a traditional school] there’s one or two kids that have a behavioral problem. What we have is all of those one or two kids. Our classrooms are the one or twos. We have all of them together in one room.
But believe it or not, once they realize, because we do have smaller settings, they’re not in a room of 30, our classrooms range from five to 10 students. And in a smaller setting, adding in additional adults, like your special education teacher, they begin to kind of relax.
How does it change your mission when, rather than having a more static body of students that you get to know, your day-to-day, month-to-month is more about keeping the whole thing going and making sure kids are accepted and then sent off to the right place?
We have a transient population, and like I said, time is not on our side. So we have to work, prepare, and organize, to effectively support the students while they’re here. So giving them time to really think about goal-setting, we try to always work with them about 'what are your next steps?'
We understand this is going on, but you want to think past this point a little bit. What are your next steps for next week? And you keep it in small chunks, because remember, we’re dealing with kids. So what’s our next step for next week, and when you reach that goal, let’s plan another goal. So that’s very important.
You must be getting a lot of these kids at a very difficult period in their lives. How does that present challenges in terms of the student being in the right frame of mind to continue their education?
That’s a big piece, and that’s why we have to work with the social/emotional piece up front. That’s what we start with, helping them to cope with where they’re at at this moment, and making sure that they understand that this does not define who they are as a person. That’s very important. This is one moment. Yes you may have made a mistake, but we don’t focus on that end of it. We’re making sure they understand that this is one moment in time and even though you’re here, let’s think about what can we help you to do so that when you leave here, you’re in a better place educationally.
How is the interaction with parents different from more traditional schools?
This year we’ve started a parent support group, which has been really successful in a sense that that’s the hardest piece. Not only is it hard for the kids, but when you think about a parent, it’s so hard for them to see their child in this environment.
So we meet once a month, and I’m really proud of it because when you have parents coming and it was really kind of mind-blowing to hear parents say ‘I thought I was the only one struggling with this.’
It’s such an overwhelming situation to be in, you’re trying to work with your child and they’re in trouble, and often times parents don’t have anyone to talk to about this. Sometimes they feel ashamed about the situation because they feel like 'what does this say about me as a parent?'
People think that it’s a bad parent who has a kid in trouble, but no. We have parents on every socioeconomic level; we have parents of every race, creed, and color; we have parents on every different level that you can think of. And this parents support group has been so tremendous in seeing how the parents have responded to it. Seeing the relief on their face that they have some place that they can talk about what they’re going through. So that’s something I’m very proud of. It’s just letting them know that they’re not by themselves. That we’re in this together, and that you can always reach out to us for support.
In terms of doing this work, tell me what you find rewarding about working with these kids and working in this setting.
The fact that you’re working with a lost population that no one really knows about. When you speak to people, very few people know who or what Passages Academy is. Unless you’ve had some kind of connection to the juvenile justice system, you’re probably not aware of it.
When you see that child take that turn and see themselves as being important and productive and that they have value, there’s no other feeling like it. That’s what I get from this particular work. It’s just so important for a child to realize that they are somebody and that they can be whoever they want to be, you know? They’re not casting die here, they can be whoever they want to be.
What is your idea of success here?
Ultimate success is that they go back to school when they leave us. Having successful reentries into their community schools and staying in schools and completing their high school diplomas is the ultimate success.
And I want to add that I do not do this work by myself. I work with eight assistant principals, with one at every site and then a few who are transient like I am. This work can not be done by one person. No idea I conceive can I get out and get it happening without the help of these individuals. I can’t let nobody think I’m doing this by myself, so I've got to thank my wonderful assistant principals: Michael Blake, Ron Carter, Brendan Daly, Norma DeLara, Shareef Rashid, Carolyn Rudder, Chrystal Stewart, and Patrick Dorfer, and all the staff at every site.