Last Chance High: 'Beautiful band of misfits' fight to graduate

How one student fought to go from drug dealer who dropped out to high school diploma.

(Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

Joshua Martinez started selling drugs at 14. It was the summer before 8th grade, and the first lesson he learned was a survival tactic, a lesson for the here and now:  don’t get caught.

“You got to hide your material somewhere. Like you never have it on you. Why? Cause if the cops do come, all they catch you with is money,” he said. “They don’t catch you with the work.”

Josh was born on Hope Street, in Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia notorious for open air drug markets that’s been ravaged by the opioid crisis.

Like most families in the area, Josh’s lives in poverty, and, as a kid, the drug trade offered some semblance of relief.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Mom didn’t have a job. Pop was locked up. So you know I had to do some things for money. Nothing nice,” he said, “but, that’s just how I grew up.”

This was not the life Josh wanted to live. But he saw his mom struggling to raise five kids on her own and felt obligated to help.

“My brother sold it. My brother-in-law sold it,” he said. “I knew what I was doing was bad and sometimes I would be scared. But at the end of the day, it helped my mom pay the bills.”

Living hand to mouth, school did not seem like a big priority.

“Always had a problem getting up,” he said. “And my mom never forced me to go to school so I would miss a lot of days.”

He made it to nearby Edison High School, but felt completely disconnected.

“When I was there, I felt out of place,” he said. “I didn’t talk to nobody.”

So, at 16, he dropped out — becoming one of about 3,500 students in Philadelphia who quit school during the 2014-15 year.

For many dropouts, that’s where the academic journey ends.

Census data show that about 12 percent of Americans age 16-24 are not in school and not working. In Philadelphia, the rate is nearly 20 percent, which ranks it among the worst for big cities nationally.

For a few years, Josh Martinez was one of those people, but he was determined to get back on track.

For one, he had no plans to raise the ranks as a dealer, with all that can entail.

“If I hold a gun to you,” he said, pointing his fingers outward, “I’m not using it. That just wasn’t me. I’m not a violent person. That definitely wasn’t me.”

Josh also did not want to live a life of government assistance.

“I’m better than that,” he said.

So at 18 he came back to the public school system, with a goal of earning his diploma.

And along the way, in a surprise to himself, he found chess — an exercise in thinking ahead.

“I was just taking pieces when I first started playing, but now there’s a goal that I want,” said Josh, 20. “And it’s for that king.”

Joshua Martinez, 20. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
Joshua Martinez, 20. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

This story was produced as part of WHYY’s Schooled podcast. You can listen above, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The school Josh Martinez found is called El Centro de Estudiantes. It’s an alternative program in Kensington for students who are trying to re-engage after dropping out. Most of the 200 students here are considered too old for their grades and too far behind for a normal high school.

If these students are going to earn diplomas, this is likely the final stop — a last chance before aging out of the school system.

Who are these students? What drove them to return? What do they learn?

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

To find out, we spent months following the group of 16 students, including Josh, who were slated to graduate in December 2018.

“When I was 14, 15, I didn’t really care about what I was doing.” — Teyonnah Taylor, 18.

“I would just go to school and I would just stay in the bathroom and walk through the hallways and just won’t go to class.” — Amanda Zeledon, 19.

“I was bad. I wasn’t on task or nothing.”  — Anthony Hackett, 18.

“Always in the principal’s office — I just made poor decisions, hung out with the wrong people.” — Justin Williams, 20.

“Being out in the ‘hood and standing on the corner and doing things that aren’t good for you. And it’s just like, ‘Do I always want to be like this for the rest of my life or do I want my life to be different?’ It’s either you choose or it chooses for you.” — Amanda Soto, 19.

Students at El Centro come from all corners of the city. But they are unified by a common fact:  something about the traditional school system did not work for them.

“The students were bad. The teachers didn’t really help the students out. They were just like, ‘If you didn’t do it, oh well,’” said Kyleah Smith, 19, who had dropped out of Sayre High School in West Philly after getting pregnant junior year.

After a while, she found El Centro.

“I couldn’t be a mom and be uneducated, so I went back to school for my baby,” she said.

“They actually do one-on-ones,” said Kyleah Smith, 19. “They try to meet with the parents. They make an effort.” (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

Students say, comparatively, El Centro feels a lot more like family, a lot less like prison.

“I like that they have a lot of trust in us to like, not make us go through metal detectors and being watched by cameras and school cops,” said Kyleah.

Anthony Hackett talked about a fight that broke out in the hallway at El Centro.  If that was his old school, Kensington High, he said it would have ended differently.

“Every officer would have been over there choking people up. Nobody in here got choked up by no officer, because there’s no officers in here,” he said. “And there’s no need for that. All you gotta do is break it up.”

“They gave you paper and they just laid back,’ said Anthony Hackett, 18, of his previous school. “I can’t learn like that. That’s why I like going here. They help out more.” (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

Julia ‘JuJu’ Grabski, 17, dropped out of Franklin Learning Center during her junior year.

“I gave up on myself. I felt like I didn’t have anybody there, so I just gave up on it,” she said.

Julia ‘JuJu’ Grabski, 17. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

“I realized I really do need school if I’m going to be successful,” JuJu said, “And when I came here, I felt like I had the support that I needed and the teachers were definitely there for me.”

Faculty at the school work hard to create this kind of environment — with some of them pouring themselves headlong into the work.

“You’ve got to swashbuckle for these youth. I’ll fight for these youth because I know they have a raw deal when they go home,” said advisor Doug Cox.

That’s one story about El Centro. And it’s a true one. One of grittiness, resilience, support — odds beating.

But scratch the surface and you’ll find another layer.

There, staff are grappling with some difficult questions, ones that apply to many, many schools across the county — wealthy, poor and in between:

What do we really mean when we say students are ready to graduate high school? Is there a baseline that we’re really willing to enforce?

What about at a school like El Centro, where students are far below grade level and often carry the weight of years of trauma?

“There are still students at 20, 21, that can’t read, can’t capitalize, can’t use punctuation properly, can’t do basic math skills,” said advisor Stephen Schaeffer. “And they’re coming to us at 20 not knowing that, are we really in a situation where we can hold students long enough that they can really be prepared?”

Doug Cox (left) teaches mathematics and engineering at El Centro. He also leads the Dark Knights chess club. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)
Doug Cox (left) teaches mathematics and engineering at El Centro. He also leads the Dark Knights chess club. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

The Dark Knights

In Doug Cox’s classroom at El Centro, the walls are adorned with colorful graffiti and the chessboard is a metaphor for life.

“When you sacrifice on the chessboard, it’s for position. You sacrifice in life for position,” Doug told a group of students.  “You have to sacrifice playtime — Fortnite late at night — to actually graduate.”

This was an informal practice session of the Dark Knights, the chess team Doug created nearly a decade ago as a way to help keep kids engaged in school.

“Like coal changes to a diamond, pressure builds character,” he told the group. “So it’s like, when you are in a tournament and you’re in pressure, now you know how to deal with it better. So if you were to play in another tournament, you wouldn’t be as nervous, right?”

One of the Dark Knights is Josh Martinez.

“Yeah, my first tournament, they were frying me,” Josh explained. “They were cooking me, but as I got better, they ain’t fry me like they did before. They still beat me, but now I have them thinking about their next move.”

Doug has built a mythology around the Dark Knights so students think of it as a secret society. All are welcome, but there’s a focus on building the confidence of young men of color.

It’s also a way to help students see life beyond city limits. Josh talked about going to a tournament that Doug drove a group of them to in Ohio.

“I didn’t have no worries. I took a few dollars with me so I could eat,” he said. “And like it was a gateway from responsibilities. I was just there to win, have fun, be around positive people.”

The group has three key values: courtesy, integrity, and perseverance, and Doug uses chess to help students like Josh rethink how they approach other aspects of life.

“Why don’t you quit when you lost a lot?” Doug said.

“There’s no point in quitting,” Josh replied. “Like you tell me, even if you are down a queen, that doesn’t mean the game is over.”

‘Potential and promise’

At El Centro, the relationships between students and staff look a lot different than in many schools. It’s cozier. Teachers are called ‘advisors.’ Everyone is on a first name basis, and it’s common for staff to become actively involved in students’ personal lives.

Some students and staff text each other frequently throughout the day. Students in legal trouble may only have one person supporting them in court: their advisor.

A student has missed a lot of classes? Faculty will go out of their way to find out what’s happening.

“Nine times out of 10,” said Doug, “those relationships you had in school with people are what made you want to learn a concept or made you want to go ahead and finish.”

At El Centro, all learning is project-based. And Stephen Schaeffer’s class is supposed to be the culmination. Seniors work on final projects and he helps them secure internships and stay on track to graduate.

“I think the project model really helps them learn things like time management, learn things about themselves in terms of their interests,” said Stephen. “Ideally, when you are done with us, you are pursuing something that you are interested in.”

School leaders say one of the biggest differences about El Centro is its small size. The student-teacher ratio is much lower than elsewhere in the city, and that means a greater ability to forge close relationships.

“It throws young people for a loop at first, like, ‘Why are you saying good morning to me? Why are you smiling? Like, what’s wrong with you?’” said El Centro principal JuDonn DeShields.

DeShields says most students who come to El Centro “distrust” school based on bad experiences elsewhere. Faculty have to go out of their way, he says, to create an atmosphere where students feel like they are respected and understood.

“And part of that is really that basic acknowledgement that, ‘You are a human being. You deserve much more than you’ve been given. We trust you. We see potential and promise in you,’” he said. “And just sort of giving that constant energy…will put a young person in a place where they’re like, ‘Something is different here. Something’s going to allow fertile ground for me to actually try this and be good at it.’”

Stephen Schaeffer leads a
Stephen Schaeffer leads a "real world learning" class during El Centro's fall 2018 trimester. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

In practice though, even with the best intentions, it’s still extremely difficult to get full student buy-in.

December’s graduating cohort started with 16 students. And from the get-go it was clear that attendance would be a problem. On many days, fewer than half of the students came to class.

“It’s unfortunate, this particular population — there are things happening outside of here that often prevents them from coming in on time,” said Stephen. “They miss a lot of stuff and then it just puts them a little further behind.”

In 2017-18, only a quarter of the students attended school regularly. That’s up from the rate the previous year, when only six percent of students would show up most days.

Even when students do attend, the level of engagement can be questionable. At times, you see students doing the work. Other times, their minds are elsewhere. Listening to music through earbuds, scrolling on their phones, paying little attention.

“That’s the challenge with a re-engagement school, said Stephen. “It’s a re-engagement school for a reason.”

Stephen wrestles with himself about if and how to lay down the law. Push too hard, expect too much, and he fears it will only push students away.

“We have students that have literacy challenges, numeracy challenges, and when those things get a little more exposed,” he said, “It unfortunately gets to the point where a student will get frustrated enough to be like, ‘Why should I bother coming?’”

So Stephen’s default is to be understanding. More lax than strict. More chill older brother than stern father.

When you talk at length with almost any of the students, it’s easy to understand this impulse to be forgiving of less than stellar student behavior.

In the December 2018 cohort, one student was actively fighting criminal drug charges. Four of the students were mothers. One of them, Kyleah Smith, was struggling with the aftermath of what had been an abusive relationship with the father of her child.

“He was not safe to be around,” she said. “So I had to remove myself and my baby from that situation.”

Many students, including Josh, stressed over very difficult relationships with parents.

“I always wanted my father around, but he was in jail,” said Josh, whose dad is now free, living in the Harrisburg area. “It’s like, message me if I need help, because clearly I do. And we don’t talk that much. But I feel like as a parent, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you should always look for your kids.”

Dealing with the sudden, violent death of family members was another common theme for students.

Take D’Alize Carroll, 17. Her dad was a drug dealer. At 35, he was shot and killed on the block where the family lived. D’Alize was 13 and vividly recalls the night of his death.

D’Alize Carroll, 17. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

“I went outside and then the cops were out there, the news and everything. It was a lot. And then when I asked the cops who got shot, he was like, ‘Some big man. He’s dead. He’s dead.’ And then I just started snapping,” she said. “I know that was my dad, because he was big. And they had the white sheet over him. I was snapping, and I was like, ‘Is he going to make it?’ He was like, ‘No, he’s dead. He’s dead.’”

Taylor Chybinski, 18, grew up in a house of drug addicts.

“I took care of the dogs, took care of my dad, my stepmom, my brother, my sister, all of it,” she said. “I’m a Cancer so that shit just comes naturally to me.”

She says her dad was a construction worker who got hooked on pills after a back injury.

“They didn’t know how to spend their money right. So it seemed like we were fucking poor. We had no soap, no shampoo,” she said. “The gas was always off. We didn’t have water at one point. And this was all at the same time. We didn’t have anything to clean ourselves with. No water. No food.”

“[My parents] didn’t get to finish high school, and I want to. That’s the least I can do, and then see where I go. That’s the first step of everything,” said Taylor Chybinski. “I gotta finish the 12 years that I put in. I mean, it’s a waste if you don’t.” (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

The deeper into addiction her dad sank, the worse things became.

“He could have been either your best friend or your worst fucking enemy. And it was more so the enemy part for me. He wasn’t always like that. He was a good guy at one point. It’s just the whole illness thing took over him and made him fucking batshit. And I just didn’t want to deal with it no more, and he wound up killing himself the week after I moved out.”

This was July 2017. He hanged himself in the basement of the house and wasn’t found for days.

“And I didn’t know he was down there. I smelled something. We had mildew in the basement, but it was that and something else, and it was probably him. And that shit will never leave. The smell, memory, the whole thing,” she said. “That whole entire day was a shit show. I just started panicking. I was fucking crying my eyes out, threw up everywhere. It was a bad night, and it still haunts me to this day, but you gotta cope with it.”

The tracks of Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford El train run above Front Street through Kensington. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
The tracks of Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford El train run above Front Street through Kensington. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)

‘Something you grow up into’

At school, Josh Martinez is known as being easygoing and funny. Every day in class, Stephen Schaeffer would gather students into a circle and ask them to score their mood from one to ten.

Every time, without fail, Josh said, “eight.”

His steady demeanor earned him a nickname: “the turtle.”

But Josh, too, faced his share of adversity as he tried to earn his diploma. He was originally slated to graduate at the end of the 2017-18 school year, and near the end felt confident about his progress.

“I feel ready to graduate. It’s in my grasp. I’m not going to let it go,” he said in May 2018.

“I am wise. I am patient. I am vigorous and flexible. In dreams, I embody fatherhood, wisdom, loyalty, and spiritual growth,” wrote Josh Martinez in response to a ‘Who am I?’ prompt. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

But Josh was missing so many classes that school leaders decided he’d have to return the following year to finish.

At the time, he had been working at a package delivery warehouse and supporting his older sister and her children — sleeping on the couch in her small apartment beneath the El train in Kensington.

“I’m helping her with the bills because she don’t have no income,” he said.

Josh’s sister, Arianna, 22, has three children five-years-old and under.

“He paid the rent for more than five months just to make sure that we were able to have somewhere to stay,” Arianna said, holding her newborn in her arms. “He worked a mighty lot during school…and even on the weekends he would take shifts”

Arianna, who also at one point attended El Centro, had a childhood even more tumultuous than Josh’s.

When she talks about those days, a far off look comes to her eye. Each word is chosen cautiously.  It’s as if she’s rewatching a movie she wishes she could forget.

“I really wouldn’t know how to explain it,” she said. “I didn’t have the support I needed. I had five or 10 people who showed me who I didn’t want to be.”

The city’s department of human services intervened, and she and two older siblings were separated from the family and sent to a group home.

“After that I was just angry. So everywhere I went I was disrespectful and I tried to run away and I didn’t follow the rules,” she said. “I made sure they didn’t want me.”

Eventually, Arianna and her siblings were returned home, but by then she was on a troubled path. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anger issues. She says she didn’t take school seriously, didn’t respect authority and also turned to selling drugs.

“It’s just something that happens around here. This is something you grow up into,” she said. “That’s how I was able to buy my hygienes and sometimes food. It was just something I had to do.”

By 17, she had her daughter.

“I took one look at her and, you know, ‘I can never raise you and put you through anything I went through.’ And that was just my first thought looking at her. I had to do it right. I have to try to survive the best way I can.”

Arianna Martinez, 22, and her children in her Kensington apartment. (Kevin McCorry for Keystone Crossroads)

Arianna hoped to get herself into a better position. But her time at El Centro didn’t last. She soon had another baby and felt overwhelmed. Her older sister, Melinda, also went to the school and managed to graduate, but Arianna didn’t make it.

“It would have made me feel so much better to know that I was able to accomplish something. It probably would have made me a better person,” she said. “I would have had more hope for something.”

Now, Arianna has given up on the idea that her own life can be much improved.

“I feel like it’s too late,” she said. “You know, like, I tried. I guess my chance now is just to try to raise the kids the best way I can and they make something out of themselves — take after their uncle maybe.”

That uncle, of course, is Josh, who Arianna sees as someone who has the motivation and the heart to overcome the pitfalls of his surroundings.

“Josh, he can sit there and he can see all of it,” she said. “And the only thing he can think is, ‘You see, sis.’ This is why I want to finish school and do something — so I can help ya’ll get out of here, because, you know, the kids don’t gotta be seeing this.’”

The fact that Josh ended up falling behind in school because he was helping her was crushing.

But she felt her only options were to accept help, or go back to selling drugs.

“I was really tempted, because my brother had to sit there and pay the rent and I wanted so bad to — because it’s that easy,” she said. “But the only thing I could think is, ‘Do I want to end up like everybody else and literally miss out half my kids’ life just because I wanted a couple dollars?’ Like, no. I rather be homeless. I’d rather be poor.”

"My chance now is just to try to raise the kids the best way I can and they make something out of themselves," said Arianna. "Take after their uncle maybe.” (Kevin McCorry/Keystone Crossroads)

Arianna’s immediate situation did improve. She started getting a federal disability payment, and that took some of the money pressure off.

But, by then, Josh was discouraged that he needed to do another semester in order to graduate. Once he started collecting a steady full-time paycheck, it was harder to imagine sitting in a classroom.

“Now I get to go to work and be a man that I want to be,” he said.

Arianna urged him to see it through.

“I always said to him, ‘Just stay in school,’” she said. “‘Once you finish it will be all fine and dandy. You’ll be able to get a job and you can work as much as you want.”

Josh may not have gone back if it wasn’t for his connection to Doug Cox — a relationship built through the Dark Knights.

“I show up at his house, ‘What’s going on with you?’ So I do a little bit extra to make sure that he comes into school,” said Doug.

“He literally would knock on the door. And ask for him and you know ask if he’s OK, if he’s going to go back to school,” said Arianna. “He made sure Josh was motivated enough to go back. They just don’t make teachers like that anymore.”

Doug, who is a father himself, has had this type of relationship with many students at El Centro over the years. There are some students he messages every morning to urge them to come to school.

“My mom passed away when I was 16,” said Doug Cox. “That’s probably another reason why I understand the need to go a little longer with my students than the average person would — just because I know that pain lasts a long time.” (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

“This is something that you have to work with a young man and give him constant reminders on the daily, ‘You have to come into school and stay on the path,’” said Doug. “Chess requires you to be consistent in your thought. So you have to be consistent in your thought as far as what you’re going to do in the future and have a plan. Like, ‘What’s the plan?’ You know what I mean? If you have no plan the plan is going to be made for you.”

Josh and Arianna Martinez. D’Alize Carrol. Taylor Chybinski.

It’s stories like theirs that faculty at El Centro hear every day. Stories of trauma, desperation, complication.

Given how difficult these situations are, how far behind these students often are, it forces some very difficult questions.

Is it unfair to hold them to a high bar academically? Or is unfair to them and the system at large to let them pass through?

Joshua Martinez has his portrait taken at El Centro by our photographer. (Kevin McCorry/Keystone Crossroads)
Joshua Martinez has his portrait taken at El Centro by our photographer. (Kevin McCorry/Keystone Crossroads)

‘Man behind the curtain’

It’s early October at El Centro, two months away from graduation for Josh Martinez’s cohort, and the class is practicing presentations for what the school calls its legacy projects.

The idea is for students to develop a project that they are passionate about that is somehow tied to learning standards.  Students are given months to work on it and they can’t graduate until they finish and present in front of the entire school.

Josh’s idea was to develop a personal fitness workshop. He spoke about his own struggles and successes with fitness over the years. Attempting to tie the idea to academics, he mentioned communication skills.

After the practice presentation, Josh’s Advisor, Betsy Weiss, gently pushed back on the idea.

“One of the questions on this rubric is, how does this stretch you?” said Betsy. “How is it challenging? What is something that’s going to be challenging for you to learn and to do?”

El Centro advisor Betsy Weiss talks with Josh Martinez. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

Essentially, she was asking: what are you going to do with this culminating project that really shows you are ready to graduate? That really shows you should earn a diploma?

It was a good question. One that could have been asked of many of the other students. One legacy project was about putting together a care package for new mothers. Another was about celebrating school spirit. There was another about running a workout class.

“So when it comes to what’s going to be the most challenging, to me, it’s probably going to be speaking about it. Because somebody might come to me and ask a question,” said Josh. “I gotta like already know in my head, ‘Alright, I know how to answer that.’”

Betsy let it go at that.

But her questions tap into a larger debate that unfolded among faculty behind the scenes.

There’s widespread agreement that the students at El Centro have faced such setbacks and traumas that they are badly in need of one-on-one support and guidance.

“Like, ‘I’m here for you.’ That is like the driving force, like our cornerstone,” said principal JuDonn DeShields.

But when it comes to academics, pushing to make sure there is meaningful learning happening in every class, some faculty say the school is falling well short.

“Being bit of a whistleblower, or saying, like, ‘This is the man behind the curtain’ comes with a certain level of risk,” said Kate Wand, who was in her second year teaching at El Centro.

Wand described a school with a very loose professional culture with little meaningful oversight or accountability for staff. She praised some of her peers, described others as well-meaning but ineffective, and challenged the notion that others should even be allowed to set foot in classrooms.

“The integrity of what students actually learn here. In terms of skills, in terms of rigor. There’s a huge disconnect. Many of our students are graduating on a sixth grade reading level,” she said. “And I think that there’s something quite problematic about that. We as a school are failing our students.”

Wand says the school’s expectations are too low.

“We’ve inflated our grades to give a false sense of, ‘You’re own honor roll.’ And it’s like, ‘Really? I haven’t been here?’ I literally had a student say, ‘I’m on honor roll? But I haven’t been here the last two weeks?’ And it’s, like, ‘You’re still on honor roll.’”

Wand likened it to “cooking the books.”

“It’s a sham. And it’s exploitative towards our students. We are saying, ‘OK, come to this place. We’ll give you success. We will do this with you.’ And then, once they leave here, they’re not — they don’t have the tools that they need to compete.”

Wand has been a teacher for about a decade. She started at charter schools in Brooklyn and Boston. Before this job she worked in China and South America.

When she would talk to some peers about her complaints about El Centro, she says the response would have the vibe of:  you don’t really know what it means to teach a group of high poverty students in a public school in Philadelphia.

She gave an example about a conversation with another teacher.

“And they said, ‘We need to remember who were working with.’ That is like textbook inequity and ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’” she said. “Because what is it? Because they’re black and brown and poor that suddenly we don’t have standards that they’re going to be held to on a larger social context?”

Reflecting on Wand’s criticism, Principal DeShields acknowledged the school — like any — could do better. But he questioned her approach for spurring positive change.

“If you feel that way, what are you doing about it? And if you’re not doing anything about it actively, then you’re part of the problem,” he said. “So I think that’s always the gentle feedback I always try and give in response to people: ‘I’m here to be a partner with you in that process of making it better. I would rather not dwell on the things that are not working. I would rather get to creating solutions for them. I think there are some people that are willing to do that, and there are other people who…constantly say, ‘This is what’s not working and this is all I’m going to give you.’ That drives me crazy, because there’s so much good work to be done. It’s not about like, ‘Here’s what’s wrong.’ It’s about, ‘What can we do to make it better?’”

Diploma debate

Beyond the disagreements among staff at El Centro, this dynamic speaks to a larger tension within the education system writ large.

The average student in America spends more than 15,000 hours in school from kindergarten through 12th grade. That comes at a nationwide price tag of more than $650 billion each year.

For all that time and effort, what exactly are we saying students should know and be able to do?

Every state lays out its academic standards and most specify that students need to take a certain number of courses in a range of subjects.

But few draw a hard line in the sand. Few say that students can only earn diplomas if they can prove their abilities on some objective measure.

In most states, students either graduate or don’t, based on decisions made by teachers and principals.

Some say that’s a good thing. Leave the state out of it. Leave standardized tests out of it. Allow the decision to be made by a local professional who knows a fuller context of a student.

Others say this creates a system ripe for underachievement.

“Are we being honest with these kids by giving them an empty diploma? Probably not,” said Donna Cooper, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based non-profit Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Cooper also worked as a policy director under former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell where she was instrumental in pushing the state to adopt a uniform set of graduation requirements.

Without a clear standard across the board, the value of a diploma gets pretty squishy, she says, with students at vastly different levels earning the same piece of paper.

“I’m not a fan of giving students who are years and years and years away from what we think would be an 11th or 12th grade standard of education a diploma,” she said, “because they realize when they are young adults that they basically have been screwed. ‘I was given a diploma, but I don’t know anything.’ That creates alienation in the system. It creates a lack of belief in the institutions.”

Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth in her office in Philadelphia. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)

Cooper’s idea, though, has fallen out of favor. Pennsylvania had adopted a law requiring students to pass Keystone Exams in literature, algebra and biology in order to graduate.

But early results didn’t look good — and not just at high poverty, urban schools like El Centro.  A quarter million students in all sorts of districts across the state were not passing the tests after multiple tries.

So the plan was scrapped before being enforced.

“And unfortunately in Pennsylvania, right now, a diploma has very little meaning,” she said.

Even in states where there are tougher rules on the books for graduation, there are always carve outs — alternate ways for low performing students to be shepherded through.

Why? In large part because there’s not a school system in America that has solved poverty and trauma.

There’s not an example working at scale that takes students in deep poverty and consistently pushes them to achieve at the levels set by the state.

And so, at the policy level, you if you really hold a high bar for what a diploma means, you face a politically and socially difficult dilemma.

Either watch the graduation rate drop, creating a whole new crop of young people without degrees. Or work like mad to create better schools to serve students in poverty.

Really trying to do that for every student in every school would likely take a gigantic new financial investment.

At schools like El Centro, where many students are so far behind, the support system would need to be tremendous. More teachers, counselors, social workers, tutors — even building upgrades.

“You want to start talking about, ‘Is it fair? Let’s even the playing field first and then talk about it being fair,” said El Centro advisor Stephen Schaeffer.

He spoke on a frigid day in mid-November. El Centro’s heating system is shoddy and often malfunctions. On days such as this — when it’s cold and the heat doesn’t work — classes are cancelled.

“It’s cold in here. I still have on my hat and my coat from being outside. And if I wasn’t going to be typing on the computer, I’d have my gloves on,” he said. “It’s that kind of cold.”

Education funding has gone up consistently in Pennsylvania in recent years, but nowhere near the level it would take to fix crumbling buildings and hire a slew of additional people at schools like El Centro.

And even if that were to happen, there’s no guarantee that more resources alone would ensure that all students would actually achieve at high levels.

So most states do the easy thing. Either no firm expectations at all, or expectations on paper with plenty of escape routes in practice.

So to advocates like Cooper, this means employers should be well aware of what a diploma is and isn’t — and that they shouldn’t discount the value of an equivalency diploma.

“A G.E.D., on some level in Pennsylvania, is more rigorous than any high school graduation standard,” she said. “Because it’s clear, you have to pass five parts of the G.E.D. exam. You gotta pass it or you don’t get it.”

Ryan Rivera, former El Centro student. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)
Ryan Rivera, former El Centro student. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

‘To what end?’

The reality, though, is that a G.E.D. does have a stigma among some employers and colleges.

Ryan Rivera, a former El Centro student, learned this firsthand.

During his first stint at the school, he had an internship at PECO, Philadelphia’s electric utility. He was talking with the company’s head of human resources.

“He told me, ‘You know when I look at a resume to hire people, you know the first thing I look for?’

“I said what, ‘Their name, their age.’ He was like, ‘no.’

“He was like, ‘I look for the educational level. If they have a GED or high school diploma. And if I see they have a GED that doesn’t affect if they are going to get the job or not. But I mean, in a way, it tells me that you quit. At one point in your life you quit. Granted, you went back. You got it done. But you still quit.’ You know, he said, ‘High school diploma — even though it took you long to get it, you never stopped fighting for it.”

Like many El Centro students, Rivera had a tough upbringing. He grew up poor, had bad experiences in public school, and was arrested at 18 for selling drugs.

“I sat in that cell — this is my second arrest — I sat in that cell and started to realize, ‘Yo. Shit is real now. I’m an adult. If I don’t slow down, I’m going to be going to jail or I’m going to be dead,’” he said. “That was my wake up call.”

He was able to avoid jail time and got his record expunged. Then, thinking about what that HR director said, he returned to El Centro on a mission. He took advantage of all the school had to offer: the close relationships with faculty, the opportunity to gain real world experience through internships.

He earned his diploma at 20 and it opened doors for him. Currently, he works in Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center as a judge’s assistant.

“Give out subpoenas, really, anything an assistant would do,” he said.

Rivera is the first to admit, he’s never been that strong academically.

“I’m ashamed to say this but I don’t know my timetables. I only know like my ‘fives,’ my ‘tens,’ my ‘ones,’ my ‘zeros,’ like the easy stuff. But the hard stuff — like what’s eight times eight? Probably, what, 16? Something like that? I probably got that wrong,” he said, laughing. “Shit!”

But, despite what standardized testing would say, Rivera seems to know how to be successful in life. He’s a charmer. He knows how to follow direction, how to come through on a task — how to code switch.

“At work I’m not like, ‘Yo, know what I mean? Know what I’m sayin’? Whassup? Ima holler at you.’ That’s not how I talk. Can’t talk like that work. It’s not professional. It doesn’t look correct,” he said. “It doesn’t look right coming out of my mouth.”

“I sat in that cell and started to realize, ‘If I don’t slow down, I’m going to be going to jail or I’m going to be dead,’” said Ryan Rivera. “That was my wake up call.” (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

El Centro is run by Big Picture Philadelphia, a franchise of a national organization. David Bromley is in charge of its two schools in the city. He says Ryan Rivera’s story exemplifies why the push for test-based graduation standards is misguided.

“I would argue that kids graduating from high school and knowing how to interact with adults and other human beings in an intelligent way and problem solve with them is going to take them a lot farther in this economy than understanding U.S. history or passing the science Keystone test or frankly passing a lot of the stuff on the math Keystone test,” he said.

Bromley thinks the debate about standards gets to the heart of an education question that often goes unasked.

“I think maybe the one question that we don’t ask in education of ourselves enough is, ‘To what end? Why are we doing this?’ We have standards. But to what end? Like what are we really trying to accomplish with our high school experience?” he said. “I think most people feel like it was another box they had to check to move on.”

His vision is for students to be able to say this:

“‘I’ve gotten a better understanding of who I am — a deep, deep, better understanding of who I am and what my interest areas are,’” he said. “‘And my post-secondary plan is not just go check the next checkbox, but do something that’s meaningful for me. So I can live a more meaningful life.”

But he admits, that’s a very hard thing to objectively gauge.

“I think we know it when we see it,” he said. “It’s one of those things.”

Ryan Rivera clearly seems to have ‘it.’ And now, to El Centro’s credit, he’s an independent man. Reliable paycheck. Health insurance. Retirement plan.

Firmly not in that 20 percent of young Philadelphians without school or work.

“Just a little dirty kid from North Philadelphia to where I’m at now — for me, it’s great. It’s prestigious,” said Rivera. “It’s like working for the president.”

Students from El Centro's December 2018 cohort at the legacy project presentation event. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)
Students from El Centro's December 2018 cohort at the legacy project presentation event. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

‘We are enough’

The promise of independence is the reason students find their way to schools like El Centro. Many of them know well the struggle of life being poor and without a diploma. In a lot of cases, through the eyes of their family members, they’ve seen the dead-ends that can lead to down the line.

And so — diploma debate aside — students know it’s still worth the fight, worth being pushed out of their comfort zones.

At the culminating, legacy project event for Josh Martinez’s cohort, this idea was on full display. The presentations were held at the local community center Taller Puertorriqueño, in a sleek room with a big stage.

The entire school was there to watch and you could feel the nerves of students pulsing through the room.

“My heart is beating really fast,” said Amanda Zeledon.

“[I’m] a mess,” said Julia Grabski. “It’s nerve-wracking. It’s like 100 people watching me.”

Josh was feeling it too.

“I’m good. I’m ready to go,” he said before an anxious laugh. “I’m lying. I’m not ready to go.”

Before the presentations began, El Centro advisor Mari Morales-Williams huddled the group in a tight circle to put them in the right mindset.

“I want you to repeat after me: I am. I am enough. I trust myself. I am enough. I am a beacon of light. I am a vessel of truth. I am my ancestors wildest dreams,” they said in call-and-response. “I am courageous. I am brave. I am enough. We are enough.”

If you were scoring the projects based on proof of academic mastery, most wouldn’t pass the eye test.

But probe deeper and, for people who can have every reason to forget the idea of school entirely, its hard to miss the signs of growth.

For students like Taylor Chybinski to make it to the end, it’s a huge moment.

“This school has really helped me a lot — not even just academically, but socially,” said Taylor.

Despite the complications of their lives, 12 of the 16 who started the semester managed to graduate. They racked up enough internship hours. They got their assignments done, and they finished their projects.

Even if it meant students like Amanda Zeledon — who became a mom two months before the school year began — had to overcome fears of public speaking.

“It just made me more outspoken and more outgoing in general,” she said.

“It’s hard waking up in the morning with a newborn baby, but I’m making it happen,” said Amanda Zeledon, 19. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)

Even if it meant, for students like Anthony Hackett, overcoming the urge to quit.

“I have a big self-doubt problem, and sometimes it gets overwhelming with all the assignments,” he said. “And sometimes I be like, ‘It’s too much work for me. I can’t do it.’ And I just give up right there, and I won’t want to do anything.”

“Every staff in here shows you love you would never get in a regular school…Nobody in here yells at you. They come at you like an adult. Because we are grown up.” (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

For each of the dozen who made it, they’ll tell you it was the relationship with someone on the faculty that kept them coming — people like Stephen Schaeffer, Betsy Weiss, Kate Wand and Doug Cox.

“Getting them to see that they can actually accomplish something is a huge step for a lot of them. That may be the first time they’ve accomplished something that big in their lives,” said Stephen.

El Centro has an unofficial motto: ‘Honey badger don’t care.’ It’s a nod to viral memes and videos celebrating a mammal known for being tough-nosed and fearless. Honey badgers bite the heads off of poisonous snakes. They stick their faces in a hive for larvae and shrug off the sting of a swarm of bees.

Honey badgers been there, honey badgers done that.

They’re not pretty, but they keep going despite the complications.

That’s the attitude at El Centro. We’re different. It may not have worked for us elsewhere. We may have stumbled. But we’re still here — proud to be in the fight.

As counselor Angie Smith put it: “We’re a beautiful band of misfits that found each other.”

For Josh Martinez, that was a mindset that worked, a culture that kept him coming, and, ultimately, delivered him a pride he can now fall back on.

“I know that I can be stubborn sometimes. I can be lazy in my work. But I can be very persistent when it comes to doing something that I do want to do,” he said in front of the entire school at the end of his legacy project presentation. “So I just want to thank every teacher — especially you Doug.”

Joshua Martinez, high school graduate. 'We out this jawn.' (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)
Joshua Martinez, high school graduate. 'We out this jawn.' (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

On graduation day, the room buzzed.

Janelle Williams couldn’t get over the fact that her son Justin made it.

“Finally, something that we never thought would happen, or it seemed very slim at times, it’s here. It happened. My boy graduated,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him. I cried the entire ceremony.”

“I’m not expecting everything to be easy after El Centro, because I know it’s not. It’s hard now.” — Anthony Hackett

Cheering on Josh were his two older sisters.

“When you are low class, there’s no money for things or family to be there for you in the right way, to push you through it,” said Melinda, who also earned her diploma at the school. “At El Centro, they are family, and they push you through it.”

Arianna, her own children in her arms, beamed with pride.

“All we really have is each other,” she said. “So we motivate each other and try to keep each other out of the cloud that we’ve been through growing up.”

Josh, in a crowd of his peers, didn’t want to reveal too much of what was going on below the surface.

“I’m not a sentimental bull. That’s all I’m saying. I ain’t sentimental. I’m as hard as a rock. We don’t break. But they’re my sisters, you know, I have mad love for them,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

‘A mirror’

At the end of the school year, some major changes were afoot at El Centro.

Principal JuDonn DeShields decided to resign to focus on his Ph.D. and his family.

“I’d like to start a family. And I know that, if I’m giving 100 percent to this, I don’t feel good about giving 75 percent of that,” he said.

DeShields wasn’t alone in leaving. All told, the end of the year marked the largest staff turnover in memory. Some left — some were asked not to come back.

Kate Wand was leaving because of new rules imposed by the school district around certification. She’s certified in Massachusetts — not Pennsylvania. She thinks being a squeaky wheel at the school didn’t help her case, an idea Big Picture Philadelphia’s David Bromley rejects.

“I don’t see myself as, ‘How can I stir up some stuff?’ I never have thought of myself that way,” said Wand. “The ‘trouble coworker’ or the ‘trouble colleague’ — or whatever sort of title I might sometimes fall into — is often working to get the organization back into alignment with its own mission, its own values. It’s just holding a mirror.”

“Being bit of a whistleblower, or saying, like, ‘This is the man behind the curtain’ comes with a certain level of risk,” said Kate Wand. (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

Wand’s efforts, though, do not seem to have been made in vain.

Bromley acknowledged that the school could be doing a much better job, and said leadership has long known and planned to act on the issues at the school.

He said, when the school opened 11 years ago, there was an assumption that the Big Picture approach that had worked in other cities would translate to an alternative school in Philadelphia.

“We were wrong,” he said. “This is a tragically traumatized group of kids. It’s been more of a challenge that we ever anticipated.”

Moving into the next year, Bromley said there’d be “serious” changes. Teachers will have more training and stronger oversight and classrooms will be more focused on learning targets. They want to keep the family-like culture — the “magic” of the school — but add more of an emphasis on accountability.

“I think we want to get closer to developing this competency system where we can say, ‘These are the key pieces that are going to best launch them when they graduate,’” he said.

Doug Cox and some of his trophy-winning members of the Dark Knights, including Marquan Smith (right).
Doug Cox and some of his trophy-winning members of the Dark Knights, including Marquan Smith (right). "Once you're a Dark Knight," said Doug, "you're always a Dark Knight." (Kimberly Paynter/Keystone Crossroads)

Despite the changes at the school, one constant is Doug Cox and the Dark Knights.

Every semester, Doug finds more students to join the club.

Students like Marquan Smith, who, like Josh Martinez before him, didn’t thrive in the typical school system.

“I got kicked out,” he said, ‘“cause, fighting.”

But students who, through chess, start to see a new endgame — a wider view of the horizon.

“I came here. It got better,” Marquan said. “Start playing chess. Start winning trophies. Life got a little bit better for me.”

As Doug said to Josh and his classmates at graduation, it’s that prospect of character development — of progress, of hope — that keeps him committed to a life of service.

“That’s why I put in the work,” he said. “When you come into contact with me on a daily basis, you are respected, you are powerful, you are the sole controller of your destiny. They cannot steal your education.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal