Carlton “CJ” Heath hiked up his striped socks, put on a bow tie, climbed on stage—and recounted a path to graduation that, like his fashion choices and like his school, took some unexpected turns.
CJ was one of three seniors who spoke Thursday at the graduation ceremony for High School in the Community (HSC) in Wooster Square Park.
He told a personal turnaround story for a school experiencing its own experimental turnaround, as a teachers-union-run school-reform test case.
The ceremony was one of seven high school graduations that took place Thursday evening. Another two ceremonies take place Monday. In all, 1,027 seniors will receive diplomas across the city, according to the school district.
CJ told a story you don’t often hear at graduations—one from a student who didn’t always get As.
He told the story with laughter, and style.
CJ drew smiles as he climbed onto a stage in the middle of the park, lifting his blue gown to reveal striped white and blue socks hiked up his shins. He wore a signature bow tie, a fashion choice that has made him stand out from the crowd at HSC.
He didn’t start high school dressing that way—or moving on the path to graduation.
CJ flunked his classes freshman year. The classes weren’t too hard for him; he just wasn’t into school. He returned in the fall as a freshman again.
From the podium Thursday, CJ described sitting in class and “noticing all the negativity of other students” bullying each other and cursing at the teacher. He decided he didn’t want to be that way.
“I sat down, and I grew up,” he said.
His second year, he met a group of kids and started “jerking.” That’s the name for a kind of dance born on the streets of L.A. He started dancing twice a week and battling other dance crews. In jerking, he found something to care about. He found a group of friends, a new identity—and a new focus.
He changed his image, trading baggy pants for slimmer clothes. He gained “confidence in myself”—enough to brush off the comments from guys who told him “I look gay because I’m wearing skinny jeans.”
One day, he recalled, a stranger spotted his dance crew hanging out on Chapel Street.
“The guy rolled all the way across the street to ask why we were wearing skinny jeans,” CJ said. “You can’t hold guns” in skinny jeans, the guy objected. A younger CJ might have gotten into an argument. But he said he had gained the confidence to ignore the comment.
The lesson, he told his fellow students Thursday: “Self-respect is so essential.”
After his faltering first freshman year, CJ stayed on track in school. In his fifth, senior year, he emerged as a leader and a teacher for other kids. Now 18, he’s heading to Gateway Community College with plans to study biology.
He said HSC taught him about splitting molecules and about the U.S. Constitution. The biggest lesson of all: “having pride and dignity in yourself.”
“You are perfect the way you are,” he told his classmates. “Don’t let nobody shoot you down.”
“Believe in yourself each and every day. Give yourself a compliment every day,” he advised. If people acted that way, he said, “imagine how many bullets wouldn’t have been shot on the streets of New Haven.”
Teachers who saw his transformation listened to his remarks with pride. Erik Good, who’s now the school “facilitator” (aka principal), said CJ was part of an experiment in helping kids who repeated years of school. His second freshman year, CJ and some other repeaters entered a small program with Good and two other teachers. The program included a “relationship-building course,” Good said.
Through the program, and through his own inner transformation, CJ “felt comfortable being a different person,” Good recalled.
From the stage, principal Good thanked seniors for hanging with HSC during a time of great transition. Just 10 months ago, he reminded them, he gathered seniors into the school cafeteria and announced some major changes, including mandatory after-school time and a new way of teaching. The changes came as the school became an official “turnaround” school, backed by $2.1 million in state money, and run by the teachers union.
The changes had the largest impact on freshmen and sophomores, whose classes switched to an independent-paced setup with new report cards. But seniors also experienced a new method of instruction that required more independence, self-motivation—and on occasion, even required them to set their own class schedule for the day. In CJ’s math class, for example, students had to assign themselves their own homework at first, and work on their own, or in small groups, to master the material.
“We switched the game on you at the end,” Good told seniors Thursday. “The perseverance you showed to get here may be the most important thing” you take away from high school.
Of this year’s citywide class of 1,027 seniors, 80 percent plan to attend college in the fall, according to the school district.
Here’s a glimpse of where some HSC grads are headed:
Tyshawn Lowery plans to enroll in Gateway Community College to study graphic design. “Some family members questioned my plan. They feel I could do better than Gateway,” he said, “but it’s my college experience.” He hopes to learn computer programming so he can design video games.
Victor Martinez, who was briefly booted from HSC and sent to an alternative high school, made a comeback at HSC. He graduated from using ADHD medication, and finished out his senior year strong, according to his mom, Monsy Lopez. He recently decided he wants to be a massage therapist. He plans to work at Wal-Mart over the summer, then take classes in the fall at Gateway or at the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy in Branford. “If I don’t go to college, I’m going to get lazy,” he said.
Trevor Smith (pictured with his dad, Greg) plans to study engineering at Gateway while also trying to make it as a musician.
Shawn Morris (pictured with his dad, Terrence), who plays the clarinet, piano and saxophone, plans to double-major in music and psychology at UConn. He’ll start next week on a six-week summer school to get ready for college.
Chastity Berrios (pictured with her sister, Liliam Ramos) plans to commute to Fairfield University to study social work.
“We did it,” said Chastity. “We finished with this chapter, and now there’s a whole new one to start.”
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• Jury Sentences Jayla To Her Own Punishment
• Teachers Clash With Union Prez Over Turnaround
• 91-39 Blowout Comes With A Lesson For Victors
• New Haven Rallies For Solanlly & Chastity
• Social Promotion Vow Put To The Test
• HSC Heads To Capitol For New Diplomas
• She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission
• High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
• Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
• Nikita Makes It Home
• 15 Seniors Head To College Early
• No More “B And A Smile”
• Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”