New York City

Remarkable NYC students overcome all odds to graduate

June 27, 2013 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott hosted a reception on Monday for this year’s Remarkable Achievement Award winners and their guests at Tweed Courthouse, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) headquarters.

Since 2006, the New York City Schools Chancellor has honored students who have overcome personal or academic challenges to earn their diplomas and continue on to college. Each high school principal is asked to select one student from his or her school to receive the Remarkable Achievement Award.

This year, 178 high school graduates from across the city were awarded this distinction.

“Today, more than ever, the pathway to a brighter future runs through our classroom, which is why we have worked to improve the quality of our schools and give every student the opportunity to succeed,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Our students’ courage and determination is a true inspiration, and I want to congratulate the Chancellor’s Award for Remarkable Achievement recipients as well as all of our high school graduates celebrating their academic achievements this week.”

“One word in particular comes to mind when I think of this year’s Remarkable Graduates – resilience,” said Chancellor Walcott. “I am truly awestruck by these students’ commitment to education, including their capability to stay focused on graduation and move on to college even through times of extreme difficulty and stress. I wish all of this year’s Remarkable Achievement Award winners the best of luck in college next year.”

One such student is Demetrius Johnson, who moved from foster home to foster home – over 25 in all – over the course of his life. Demetrius was adopted at six years old by a woman who would later return him back to the foster care system when he was thirteen. “I felt like an object being passed around,” he said. “People kept going in and out of my life. I just felt lonely, crying my eyes out every night.”

With all of this tragedy and constant instability in his life, it is no surprise that Demetrius disregarded schoolwork, turned to drugs and gangs, and eventually landed in a juvenile detention center at the age of sixteen. But that’s when it finally hit him – he needed to make a change.

“I said to myself, ‘If you don’t pull yourself together, you’re going to be either dead or in jail,’” Demetrius explained. “The odds were really out to get me. I decided that if I got out of juvenile detention, I was going to turn things around.”

And that is exactly what he did at Freedom Academy High School, a transfer school in Downtown Brooklyn. Demetrius entered Freedom Academy with few credits and a defiant attitude, but once he realized he had the support of school administrators and teachers, he looked through a new lens at life. “People slowly started to believe in me, and I started to build confidence and became optimistic about my situation and my future,” he said. “I didn’t realize how important school was until I got to Freedom Academy. They pulled me out of the darkness.”

Against all odds, Demetrius will attend SUNY Jefferson this coming fall. He hopes to move on to law school and become a lawyer and advocate for children in the foster care system before eventually becoming a judge. “Imagine when I become a judge, and after all that I’ve been through, kids in the same situation can look up to me and say, ‘If that man Demetrius Johnson can make it, why can’t I make it?’”

Another student honored for achieving against all odds is Johanna Tamayo. Johanna always knew she wanted to go to college after graduating high school, and becoming pregnant at the age of 16 did not change her aspiration. “Teenage moms mostly drop out from high school,” Johanna said. “I wanted to continue because I want my son to look up to me and follow in my footsteps.”

The decision to stay in school was only the beginning. Johanna’s commute from Staten Island to Aspirations Diploma Plus High School in Brooklyn took nearly two hours each way, and having a baby in tow made things much more complicated. “It was really hard, but my goal was to get to school and be there for my son,” she said.

During the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, Johanna’s family was deeply affected. She took three weeks off of school in order to help her family clean up and regroup. “When she returned to Aspirations, it provided her with a sense of normalcy that helped to ground her in the new reality she lived in,” said Celina Acham, her school guidance counselor. Johanna picked up where she left off before Sandy and managed to finish all the work she needed to make up – and move forward with fervor.

Post-secondary life for Johanna is solidified: she is set to become a member of the Percy Sutton Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) Program at CUNY York College in Jamaica, Queens. She is excited to embark on her college life and will continue to instill the importance of education in her young son. She hopes to one day become a physician’s assistant.

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