NEW YORK(CBSNewYork) — With only half of New York City’s public school children graduating it’s a constant battle to find a way to improve education.
One school uses some novel approaches that may surprise you.
As CBS2’s Vladimir Duthiers reported, Eagle Academy For Young Men in the Bronx made a big difference for one student.
“The Eagle Academy For Young Men was created to make a difference in our black and Latino communities, especially for young men like me,” Ja’Paris Sheridan said.
Sheridan, 17, is a senior at the academy.
At his senior convocation he was chosen to speak, not as class president, not as a valedictorian, but as a young man who has conquered many of the struggles facing the boys in his school.
“I was headed down the same vicious cycle that so many urban youth get caught up in, a path that only has two potential outcomes, either prison or death,” he said, “I was arrested four to five times.”
Ja’Paris, the oldest of six, lives in a violent and crime ridden neighborhood in the north Bronx. Like 67 percent of black children in America, Ja’Paris has grown up in a single parent home.
Adding to his problems was the fact that both of his parents were incarcerated on drug charges when he was 9.
His mother Mercedez Smith admitted that things had not been easy for Ja’Paris.
“He took it the hardest. I had many nights that I cried, like blaming myself,” she said, “We are not that far from the projects where there is always shootouts. Even on this block, the back block, a lot of fights, a lot of gangs.”
When Ja’Paris’ mother learned about a public school in the neighborhood geared specifically to boys of color she urged her son to apply.
“I feel like that was the best choice me and my son could have ever made,” she said.
Out of thousands that applied Ja’Paris was one of the lucky 100 to be accepted in his class. It didn’t stop local gangs from trying to recruit him.
“He was always in a fight, every day, even outside of the school. They would go to his school,” Mercedez said.
He said the biggest turning point in his life came when a teacher went the extra mile to help him.
“I said, ‘wow, what is going on with this student where at one end he wants to do well and he wants to learn, but at the other end he has such a short fuse,'” 9th grade teacher, Ms. Macklin said, “One day in my class he said to me, he feels like he wants to commit suicide, and I talked to him about why he wanted to commit suicide. He said that he was going to die anyway because every single week he seemed to get into a physical altercation and he felt like he couldn’t escape it.”
From that day on Ms. Macklin has been Ja’Paris’ advocate, providing counseling and support.
“Ms. Macklin, I have told you things in the past, but I don’t think I have ever told you this. You have changed my life,” Ja’Paris said.
That, according to David Banks the President and CEO of the schools’ foundation, is the point of the Eagle Academy.
“We help young men to understand what it takes to get the lights to go on, for them to believe in themselves,” Banks said.
The way they do that is by providing structure and discipline that many of the boys have never had.
“No girls and it makes a huge difference. I think to be able to come to a place where they don’t have to worry about competing for girls they can be very focused on their school work,” Banks said, “Many of our young men, other schools would shy away from, but we admit all of these young me and we say we will put all of them in there together and will get everybody to the finish line.”
Eagle has brought an astounding number of students across the finish line. The average number of black and Latino boys to graduate high school in New York City is 50 percent. At Eagle Academy it’s 78 percent, with 100 percent going on to college.
“People don’t see the greatness that lies within boys of color. They are boys, they are kids, just like any other kid in America, and with the right direction they can soar,” Ms. Macklin said.
“That school will be forever in my memory, in my heart, and grateful to them as well because they didn’t give up on him,” Mercedez said.
The school gave her son an alternative to life on the streets, now Ja’Paris will be the first in his family to attend college.
The Bronx school is part of a system of six public schools strategically placed in high crime areas in all five boroughs and in Newark.