Leanne Stone, W&L
Leanne Stone, a member of Washington and Lee University’s Class of 2014, explored her interest in youth and education as an intern with the New York Harbor School in New York City, as part of the 2013 Shepherd Internship Program.
I wake up to my alarm at 6:30 a.m., get dressed, and walk outside into the always-bustling New York City street life. I walk two blocks to the subway stop where I immediately start sweating, due partially to the heavy summer heat being trapped underground and partially to my nerves that accompany me on the first day of my internship. I take the train downtown to the last stop, South Ferry Station, where I walk up from the subway in a sea of rushed businesspersons and confused tourists.
Once finally out into the open air, I find my way to a small ferry station sitting along the New York Harbor. I walk in and encounter a group of rowdy high school students waiting for the Governor’s Island ferry to dock. I, being the fairly shy and timid type, stand to the side of the pack of students and begin to observe, something that will serve me well in my study of this impoverished youth community in the eight weeks to come. When the ferry arrives, I walk with the herd of students wearing their royal blue Harbor School T-shirts. Once on the ferry, the students are motioned to the top deck and so, I too, continue to the upper deck. There, I observe that most students are African-American and Hispanic. I also observe the rambunctious nature of these students as it takes me back to my Darien High School days. Darien High School, located in Darien, CT, is only about an hour outside of New York City. I grew up in this small, well off, all white, suburban town. As I now stare at a much more ethnically diverse group of students than I went to high school with, I am taken back to the days of sitting in the loud, crowded cafeteria before the dreaded first bell rang. Only when I arrived at school, it was usually off of a bus or car. These kids arrive to school by ferry. The ferry takes off from the tip of Manhattan and cruises through the New York Harbor for about 10 minutes until it docks on the small Governor’s Island. Once again, I find myself in the middle of a diverse crowd of high school students and teachers as we step off the ferry and walk about five minutes to the school grounds. I feel like somewhat of an outsider as I walk alone among friend groups of energetic, inner city high schoolers on what they call “their island.” As I approach the school, I see what looks to be a brand new outside basketball court and tons of boys playing ball while girls sit around the quintessential courtyard, lined with flowers and brick sitting areas. I smile as I see these students embracing what their new “island school,”, as they often referred to it, has to offer. I, again, am taken back to my high school days. I remember playing basketball for my high school team, and my competitive spirit and love of the sport gives me a slight urge to jump right into the game. Of course, I hold back. I step towards to the front door, amazed at the beautiful brick exterior of the building, and I ask a man ushering students inside where my supervisors’ office is. I am directed to the College Advising Office, the place where I will spend much of my time in the weeks to come. I meet the three extremely friendly and kind, however evidently very busy, college advisors. One of them, Alyssa, takes me on a tour of the school. It is very up-to-date in terms of technology, classrooms, and resources. At the end of our tour, she motions me to a wall display in a glass case right outside the college office. It is a display of where all the seniors were accepted into college. She points out to me one female student who got accepted into more than 10 very good, noteworthy colleges. She then explains to me how this student is unable to attend any of these schools because of both her family’s financial situation and attitude towards the importance of college. I am immediately struck by one of the many horrors of poverty: the mere fact that it is extremely hard to break free from it. This student, my supervisor explained to me, is one of the hardest working and brightest students at the school and, therefore, is at the top of her class. As much as she has tried to control her situation and strived for the utmost success, she is still hindered by what she cannot control: where she comes from. I learn throughout my eight weeks working with these students that she is not the only one who encounters problems similar to this. At first, I felt guilty because the major issues these students have to face never once even crossed my mind growing up. Then, I realized that I shouldn’t feel guilty about my upbringing since it’s something I really have no control over. What I should be feeling inside is pride in the fact that I was going to spend the next eight weeks facing this problem head-on alongside these kids. I hoped eagerly that in my short time at The Harbor School I could make some kind of a difference. The Harbor School is a 10-year-old public high school that combines a regular high school curriculum with marine-technical preparation courses, including programs like scuba diving, marine biology research, and boat building. The school is under a separate network than most large, New York City public schools. The network, The Urban Assembly, contains several small, college-prep high schools. The Harbor School is also partially funded by The Harbor Foundation, a non-profit with a goal of raising money for the school. The aim of The Harbor School is to prepare students to attend a four-year college with a possible environmental or marine-related career in mind. The school moved from Brooklyn to Governor’s Island in 2010. This ideal location gives the students direct access to New York City’s maritime community and the New York Harbor’s many marine resources, to which the school works hard to connect the students to. According to last year’s 2013 Harbor Foundation Annual Report, the majority of the 400 students were classified as economically disadvantaged and more than 60 percent of them were qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunch. Additionally, “more than 70 percent of students enter The Harbor School performing below grade level in either math or reading.” Despite these alarming numbers, the school graduated 86 percent of its 2012 seniors and 97 percent of them were accepted into college. The question is: how? A main objective of The Harbor School is for the students to care and take pride in their schoolwork. When these students first enter high school, many of them don’t have the mentality that they should strive to do well academically. Many lack awareness that education is important for future success. This is probably due to a variety of causes that I witnessed, including unstable family situations, lack of structure outside of the school environment, and little confidence from previous educational experience. The way the college counselors and teachers at The Harbor School persuade these types of students to care about succeeding academically and to aim for college is by making them see that they are worth much more than they think they are. Every member of the staff really emphasized the “dream big” mentality, making sure the students understood just what they are capable of. During the post-internship Consortium symposium, Kirsten Lodal, founder of LIFT, emphasized that treating clients with dignity is fundamental for engendering a sense of self-worth and creating a successful future from them. This resonated with me because I saw this occur on a daily basis at The Harbor School. The college counselors were open and honest about the students’ futures, which is a necessary thing with students whose futures are so at-risk. If students were failing, the counselors sat them down and talked about what exactly might happen to them in the future if they didn’t improve their grades. The counselors really emphasized: “If you do this now, this is where you will be in the future.” Although these realities were sometimes harsh and tough for some students (and me, for that matter) to swallow, I found that it resonated with them and made them think carefully about their futures and how they were going to get to where they wanted to be in life. The Harbor School effectively utilizes direct conversation about the students’ future in helping them respect and realize their potential. Encouragement towards each student is something that I think The Harbor School does quite successfully, as the recent numbers show. The students at The Harbor School, especially the seniors, proved to me by the end of the eight weeks that they were a confident and capable bunch. I think much of that confidence is due to the positive energy and “can do” attitude that the Harbor School fosters. The staff makes sure each and every student knows he or she is worthy of the time and energy invested, an approach that can flourish in a small school environment. I came to know the senior class pretty well by the end of the summer because of the seniors’ frequent visits to the college office. By the end of my internship, I too, had gained confidence both in myself and in connecting to this underprivileged community. I spent a day late in my internship helping out with a freshman orientation camp run by both teachers and upperclassmen students. At the end of a long day, some of the upperclassmen were playing a pick up game of basketball. I was helping clean up from the day’s activities when I had the same urge to jump into the game that I had on the first day of my internship. This time there was no hesitation. I ran right onto the court, stole the ball away from one of the boys, and screamed “ah-ha!” as I dribbled to the basket and placed a lay-up in the net. Somewhat shocked at this, the students all started to crack up and yell things like, “whoa, she can play!” as some of the girls hugged me and gave me high fives. I think I shocked myself a little, too, as I blushed at the scene I had just made. Despite coming from different upbringings and having quite different childhoods, I found myself increasingly surprised throughout the summer at just how similar I was to these high school students. We listen to the same music, we have the same dreams as well as anxieties, and we enjoy a fun game of pick-up basketball. The way I was able to connect to these students on a personal level gives me hope that with a little push in the right direction, underprivileged children can reach their full potential, both as students and as confident and capable people. If every school in America had the persistent and personable support system that The Harbor School has, I believe the disadvantaged youth of this country could be raised out of poverty.