Wheels on the bus aside, this year has been a bumpy ride. March marks the first anniversary of our kids trekking to school at the kitchen table. Or the couch. Or (no judgment) a closet. Laptops and WiFi became as necessary as pencil and paper, and “Zoom” took on new meanings as both a noun and a verb. While the pandemic certainly illuminated a digital divide — and the many other challenges our public schools face — it has also highlighted the educators and administrators who juggled remote teaching, enforced safety procedures, and ministered to everything from car parades to YouTube videos in order to lift student spirits… in masks, no less.
It’s no secret that many public schools face an onslaught of obstacles, adequate funding first and foremost. But they are staffed by people who dig deep for the sake of our kids and play a major part in preparing our county’s leaders, inspiring our artists, and training our professionals.
Students are returning to classrooms where change has been afoot, with innovators who care about their future. They are also returning to schools that are striving to close opportunity gaps, raise graduation rates, and secure funding.
We checked in with Mount Vernon, Yonkers, Peekskill, Public Schools of the Tarrytowns, and Elmsford — five vibrant but less priveleged districts whose efforts toward excellence are often overlooked — to refocus on our public schools, beyond COVID. We learned that progress often outweighs perception; metrics matter but aren’t the whole picture; and diversity can be a great strength.
At age 15, Vismayra Estevez moved with her family to Sleepy Hollow from the Dominican Republic. She spoke no English but had stratospheric goals. Estevez studied long hours in the library at Sleepy Hollow High School between classes and a part-time job, crediting educators who worked alongside her for her success. In three years, she was able to graduate on time. An astonishing feat.
“I had such amazing support,” she says of the teachers and administrators in the then-ESL program (now ENL, English as a New Language). Their dedication changed her future and garnered her loyalty. This year, Estevez’s son, Michael, is a graduating senior with his sights set on the film-and-production business. College acceptance letters have been piling up, and Estevez couldn’t be prouder. Her message to prospective families is simple: “I hope individuals take into account everything this district has to offer: diversity, strong leadership, sense of belonging, supportive community, and opportunities,” she says.
Christopher Borsari, superintendent of the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns, which includes Sleepy Hollow High School, says Estevez’s story is not just anecdotal.
“Many kids articulate to me that they’re coming back to raise their kids here,” he says. They’re drawn by offerings like a dual-language program in the elementary school; dual-enrollment courses in the high school, where students can earn both high school and college credit; a science-research program run through the University at Albany; and a digital news program run by students. “And we run every AP course you can imagine,” says Borsari. “We are a unique district in Westchester. Twenty-three percent of students start as English-language learners. We have a Spanish language TASC [formerly GED]. People [whose children stayed in the district] made a choice. They value diversity — that’s an important part.”
When socially conscious 16-year-old Brielle Rennes started Mount Vernon High School’s fledgling International Baccalaureate (IB) program as a member of its first-ever graduating class, she finally found her voice. “I’ve seen her really blossom,” says Maria Rennes, Brielle’s mother. “She has real-world conversations outside of herself and her community. To be able to discuss in detail and be allowed to speak freely gives her more confidence. I no longer need to coax her.”
According to Hamilton, six years ago, the grad rate was at 68% at MVHS. In the 2018–2019 school year, it had risen to about 82%. Hamilton says he expects the STEAM and Denzel Washington School to be at 100%. “When I started, around six or seven years ago, we had one school that was in good standing. Now I’m proud to report that every school in the district, with one exception, is in good standing.”
“We kept the arts academy, added voice, woodshop, a business academy and scientific-research academy, and an Academy of Finance.”
— Dr. Edwin M. Quezeda Superintendent, Yonkers Public Schools
“I don’t think [people] should count any school out without giving it a shot,” says Rennes. “If I had done that, I wouldn’t have been able to see the growth I’ve seen in Brielle.”
“The perception of a school is hard to shake,” adds Dr. Edwin M. Quezada, superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools.
When Quezada walked into Lincoln High School for the first time as principal, he says it didn’t feel like a school. The on-time grad rate in June 2003 was 43% (49% in August), and attendance was less than 80%. “I thought, How is this possible?”
Quezada adds that they needed to re think and change course. “We kept the arts academy, added voice, woodshop, a business academy and scientific-research academy, and an Academy of Finance, affiliated with the National Academy Foundation” he says.
The Program for Scientific Inquiry at Lincoln is a STEM-based research academy where students learn to read scientific journals and submit grant proposals. There are 40 to 60 independent research projects running simultaneously. Partnership with institutions like Sloan Kettering gives students real-life experience in research. The Arts and Industry Academy partners with businesses like Harlem’s Apollo Theater. And there’s a very large special-education program at Lincoln, in the Academy of Learning. Through partnerships with businesses like Stew Leonard’s, students get job training. There are also internal jobs, such as an in-school dry-cleaning service in partnership with local Miracle Cleaners on nearby Yonkers Avenue.
Judith Uguru’s son, Kamso, is a sophomore at Lincoln High School. She says she values the personal attention Kamso is getting from designated staff who travel with his class through graduation and follow them closely as they develop. “There is continuity,” says Uguru. “That was one of the things that caught me. During our first meeting, we fell in love [with the school].”
Mia Shervington’s daughter Jada is a budding marine biologist and student at Peekskill Middle School. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Shervington says. “There are some amazing things going on.”
“The city is undergoing a renaissance,” says Dr. David Mauricio, superintendent of schools of the Peekskill City School District. “And the school district is following in its footsteps, moving in innovative directions.”
Mauricio is one of many school leaders who say their district defies assumptions. As he puts it: “We want to write our own narrative.” Peekskill is investing in free, full-day pre-K. They’ve introduced coding in elementary, have a growing music program, and the high school is getting a new STEAM Innovation Center. There is a competitive robotics team and a debate team that recently received high regard at Columbia University.
“The city is undergoing a renaissance, and the school district is following in its footsteps, moving in innovative directions.”
— Dr. David Mauricio Superintendent of Schools, Peekskill City School District
“I was concerned in the beginning,” admits Shervington. “The numbers were a little stark. And it’s the numbers that scare people off the most,” though they didn’t deter her. “I stalked the school a little bit,” she says with a chuckle. Shervington sat in on kindergarten orientation even before Jada was of age. “Visiting the school is important. That’s how you get an idea of the environment,” she says. “Take a look at the district’s Facebook page, go to the school. I’m glad I did. I see now that things take time. A lot of foundations that were laid a few years ago are working. Now we are benefiting from what was started. And it all comes from leadership.”
It is also important that people look deeper into subgroup numbers, points out Mauricio.
When looking at subgroups, the numbers are even more encouraging. For example, Peekskill is a community with higher transient rates, but the numbers prove that stability makes a difference. For kids who remained in their classes from pre-K and kindergarten through graduation, the grad rates were 88% and 92%, respectively. And in 2019, grad rates for White students were trending at 90%, while African American grad rates were at 89% — demonstrating virtually no achievement gap at Peekskill High School. The 2020 Peekskill High School grad rate is 83%. Districtwide, it’s 80%. (The district graduation rate includes those educated at Peekskill High School and out-of-district students who attend special-education/BOCES schools.)
Bruni Estrada has two children at Alexander Hamilton High School in the Elmsford Union Free School District: 17-year-old senior (and prospective mechanical engineer) Jacob and 14-year-old freshman Jada. Estrada feels Jada has benefited immeasurably from the special-education programming at the school. “It was life-changing,” she says. “I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am.”
Estrada says the district appointed a bilingual liaison, and fellow parent, with experience in special education to help her navigate any complexities. She believes parents who have discounted the district should take a deeper look. “It’s like a little family at this school,” she says.
“People look at achievement gaps,” says Peekskill’s Mauricio, “but what about opportunity gaps?”
In Peekskill and the other communities examined in this article, the level of poverty is significantly higher than in many of the county’s other towns. There are high levels of special needs, homelessness, and transient families. “We’ve done more with less,” says Mount Vernon’s Hamilton, homing in on an age-old argument about equity. “Equity does not mean someone gets more at the expense of someone else. Kids who need more should get more. It’s about leveling the playing field.”
While district needs differ, all say more would be transformative. “Our property wealth is high, but we have a large number of students struggling economically,” says the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns’ Borsari. “The funding formula doesn’t take that into account. There’s a general perception that if you’re from Westchester, you’re rich.”
The problem is, basic academic programs that fall within the funding allowance don’t motivate students to reach their highest potential. “Students always deserve more funding from the federal and state governments for programs,” says Alexander Hamilton High School principal Joseph Engelhardt.
In every district, when funding falls short, it’s the teachers and administrators who take to the front line. “It’s an uphill battle, but we have really strong warriors fighting that battle,” says Peekskill parent Shervington.
“Our property wealth is high, but we have a large number of students struggling economically. The funding formula doesn’t take that into account. There’s a general perception that if you’re from Westchester, you’re rich.”
— Christopher Borsari Superintendent, Public Schools of the Tarrytowns
Local school districts point out not only is it critical for school leaders to form business and community partnerships, like with nonprofits Yonkers Partners in Education (YPIE) and Latino U College Access (LUCA) who support students in their college aspirations, but staff often dig into their own pockets to help with everything from school supplies to prom and interview attire. “All these people in our community give money or time to our kids because they see a need,” says Borsari. “They get involved, give of their time, advocate on behalf of our kids.”
When people express doubt about the quality of education, says Marisa O’Leary, whose daughter Ella is a sixth grader in the Peekskill district, “How do you know? Have you invested in our community? A district is only as good as the people involved.”
“The greatest thing about Peekskill,” says Mauricio, “is that it is a community that embraces diversity and people from all walks of life.”
Both Peekskill and the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns offer dual-language programs for elementary school students. “It’s a program that celebrates our community and shows them they’re just as valuable as each other,” says Public Schools of the Tarrytowns’ Borsari.
Before she moved to Peekskill, O’Leary grew up in New Hampshire, in what she says was a very homogeneous White, middle-class area. “I want diversity for my daughter,” she says. “It was important to us for Ella to have the language skills and the exposure to and appreciation of other cultures. An immersion program like this is an enrichment experience. It’s a valuable skill if you become bilingual or biliterate.”
Fellow Peekskill parent Branwen MacDonald agrees. “Being exposed to Spanish is a privilege,” she says. She sees that her daughters (seventh-grader Maisie and fourth-grader Cleo) are benefiting from the dual-language program. “Moving around in the world comes more naturally to them,” says MacDonald. She feels that frequent exposure with other cultures helps erase stereotypes. “You get to know people as people.”
“Every morning I wake up and know what I’m doing it for.”
— Joseph Engelhardt Principal, Alexander Hamilton High School
According to Peekskill’s Mauricio, the Latino student grad rate improved 21% in the past four years. These are students who have to take all their classes in English (their second, sometimes third or fourth, language. “They may only have one or two periods when they’re learning their new language,” he says. The rest of the time they’re taking subjects like science and art in a language that’s not their first. “These are realities our children face when they come from other countries,” says Mauricio.
He also points out that ENL learners — whom he sees as one of his district’s greatest assets — can impact graduation rates depending on when the students enroll in school. He says, “If a student comes to America in middle or high school, it will be understandably difficult for them to graduate on time given certain language barriers.” He knows that Spanish-speaking students may not graduate in four years, but he says, “We’re okay if it takes some students longer than four years, if that’s what they need. If it takes them five or six years, we are committed to seeing their education through until the goal of graduation.”
“We give kids the gift of time,” says Public Schools of the Tarrytowns’ Borsari. “If kids show up at age 14 or 15 from another country, are they expected to graduate on time? If a kid needs to stay for an extra year or two, we encourage that.
“There is a quaint element to diversity,” Borsari continues. “But [in reality], it’s messy and complicated. It takes compromise. It’s incredibly powerful in such a positive way, but it takes work to reap the benefits of that.”
In Yonkers, Quezada saw that young men were graduating at much lower rates than young women and noticed that during graduation ceremonies at the Westchester County Center, boys would be sitting for a long time while girls were still filing down the aisles. Quezada placed a very intentional focus on young men of color, initiating My Brother’s Keeper, a movement to help close the opportunity gap. When those procession lines evened out, Quezada says, “Tears came out of my eyes. We have arrived,” he thought.
“Students will do what we expect of them,” says Sherman. “However, the perception of those who don’t work with inner-city students is that they can’t handle the workload. I believe they can; and they do achieve.”
At Lincoln, like in the rest of Yonkers, students get bussed in from differing neighborhoods. “There was a feeling that the students didn’t belong in the neighborhood,” says Sherman. “They were often regarded as interlopers in the community.” Administrators worked with businesses on nearby Yonkers Avenue, as well as neighbors along the student’s walking route, and officers at the 2nd Precinct.
But sometimes, it’s small, creative ideas that make the difference. “We allowed the senior class to do a mural on a wall,” says Sherman. “It helped them feel a sense of ownership. Students feel more part of the community.” And instead of using school bells to mark the beginning and end of classes, students get to choose music instead. “It gives a reset to students between classes. High school is an amazing time of life, where memories are made.”
“I encourage everyone to look around, see the children’s faces, ask questions of regular parents. Don’t assume. Ask. Our teachers are doing an amazing job. They are navigating so much,” says Elmsford parent Estrada.
“Every morning I wake up and know what I’m doing it for: the students and an amazing school community. I am proud to do it, as well,” says Principal Engelhardt.
So, put your rulers away, class. When it comes to the transformation of Westchester’s disadvantaged public schools, there are some things you just can’t measure.
Change is happening, despite steep challenges. And rising graduation rates — while an important indicator of strong growth and a key metric for deciding parents — don’t quite capture the creativity and warrior spirit forging change inside our bastions of democracy.
It is Westchester’s network of thriving cities and bucolic villages that together give us our verve. Our more affluent towns and sought-after school districts are well-documented attractions, for sure. But less touted and often underestimated are our dynamic urban centers and their varied, culturally diverse neighborhoods, defined as much by their struggles as by their successes.
These districts can’t afford to be immobile. A constant upward striving produces the kind of passionate, mission-driven people who help keep our county evolving. And students from all socioeconomic backgrounds reap those benefits. Rather than judge, say those in the trenches, make the effort to visit and get to know the school and the people in it.