Alex Nembhard squeezed the vise grips to break free a rusted bolt on a kid’s bicycle, as he got a fresh start on high school in a new type of classroom.
Alex (pictured), who’s 16, didn’t make the grade at Wilbur Cross High, where he finished freshman year last spring with no credits. Now he’s one of 65 first-year students entering High School in the Community (HSC), the city’s longest-running alternative high school and the newest “turnaround” school looking to revive itself as part of the city’s reform drive. And he’s one of the students in a shop class geared at giving discarded parts—and struggling students—a second chance.
The shop, on the first floor of the magnet high school’s home on Water Street, buzzed with banging mallets, clanging bike parts and tunes from Hot 93.7.
Amid the clamor, Alex diligently dismantled a pink Kent girls’ bicycle. First he used a monkey wrench to take off the wheels. Then he tackled the chain guard with a screwdriver. The screwdriver spun, stripping the bolt.
“Yo Wayne, this is rusty!” Alex called out to his teacher.
Wayne Austin, a math teacher who teaches the shop class three times a week, goes by his first name according to HSC tradition. He was making quick rounds through the room, helping students when they got stuck.
Austin (at left in photo) walked over wearing a T-shirt that read, “No crying in math class.” He rearranged the bike on its stand to get a better angle. He asked Alex to grab the vise grips from a wall of neatly labeled tools. They worked together to pop off the rusted bolt. Then Alex went to work on the pedals. He planned to take off all the parts, clean the salvageable ones, and reassemble the bike. All the bikes will be donated to kids in need.
In the shop and in other classes where students now learn at their own pace, Alex is getting a second chance at high school—as HSC embarks on its own second chance at succeeding. After enrollment plummeted amid sinking test scores and rising truancy, the school has launched a gutsy experiment to reinvent itself.
One goal is to find new ways to engage kids like Alex, in order to curb absenteeism and the dropout rate.
As the school year begins, the challenges are beginning as well. While some chronically absent kids are coming every day, others are already “racking up” missed days, according to Cameo Thorne, the school’s student services coordinator. Last year, four in ten students were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10 days of school, according to state records.
A Change From Cross
The struggle was evident in shop class Thursday, when nine of the 15 kids showed up. The students who did show up worked, for the most part enthusiastically, on three projects: To transform graffiti-laden desks into bird houses; to fix bikes to give to kids; and to learn about electronics using parts from discarded microwaves.
The shop class, a small, self-directed program where kids find new purposes for objects thrown out at the dump, is new to Alex. It’s not new to HSC, a teacher-run school that has spent four decades building a curriculum that aims to connect school to the real world.
Alex, who rides a Mongoose trick bike outside of school, said he likes the change of pace in shop class.
“I didn’t do anything like this” at Cross, he said. He’s also taking traditional courses like geometry, phy-chem, and Spanish.
Because HSC is under-enrolled, some classes are smaller than the district’s maximum of 27 kids. And the student body is 260, compared to about 1,300 at Cross.
“It’s better than Cross,” Alex said of his new school. “Cross is, like, too big.”
Next to him, junior Denasia Williams (pictured), 16, worked on re-inserting the quill stem, which is attached to the handlebars, back into the steering tube. The tricky part: a detachable foot kept dropping down into the tube. Listening to her own music through earbuds, she worked quietly through trial and error.
“I’m figuring it out for myself,” she explained.
The class is one of the most self-directed that HSC offers, according to Building Leader (aka Principal) Erik Good. Some kids choose it; others are placed there by the school. Good said that like adults, many kids have trouble sitting still for six and a half hours a day. The hands-on class can prove a welcome break.
“It’s a class we use with kids who have had a hard time being engaged in high school,” he said.
Austin sent one student outside at the beginning of shop class to let him cool down. The student ended up being productive, helping Alex wrest free a rusty pedal.
That student is an example of someone who struggles in other classes but “shines” in the shop, Austin said.
Students have been repairing kids’ bikes and giving them away, as well as selling adult bikes, from the shop since the late 1990s. Austin, a former electrical engineer who teaches math at HSC, expanded the program three years ago. He fills the room with stuff he collects from the dump in Killingworth, where he lives, as well as donations he receives from people who know about his work.
A Haven For Outcasts
The shop class embodies the original aim when a band of teachers defected from Hillhouse and founded HSC in 1970s—to build a school “without walls” that connected to students’ lives at homes. HSC has proved a haven for intellectual and social outcasts—and, increasingly over the years, students with emotional and social problems that leave them disengaged from school. As in its early days, when it formed with 142 students who left Hillhouse High School, the school attracts students who seek relief from larger high school environments.
Josh Cruz (pictured) said he ended up at HSC after a year at Hillhouse High. The sophomore, who goes by “Misfit Josh” on Twitter, said he passed some of his classes at Hillhouse, but failed others and missed a lot of school.
“It’s a’ight, but it ain’t for me,” Josh said of Hillhouse. Hillhouse, the city’s second-largest comprehensive high school, has about 1,000 kids.
Josh spent Thursday creating a simple motor (pictured) from parts scavenged from old microwaves, which Austin got from the dump.
Thomas Fischer, 18, told a similar story to Josh’s. He said he came to HSC from West Haven High School, where he had lost interest in school. He said in his freshman year there, he would often leave the building after just a couple of classes.
“Nobody was working with me to get my grades up,” he said. He said he prefers the smaller environment at HSC. “Here, they help you.”
“There’s no point of skipping” class, he reasoned, because someone will find you.
As Thomas spoke, Jaylin Santana, a 17-year-old junior, wandered over to a locked safe nearby. Austin saved the safe from the dump as a “conversation piece.” Jaylin lay down on the ground and pressed his ear against it. He tried to crack the combination lock by listening to the clicks. There could be thousands of dollars in there, he said.
“That’s my goal for the end of the year—opening that safe,” Jaylin declared.
“OK,” replied Austin. But “first you’ve got to do stuff.”
The amount of “stuff” to do in shop class is as large as a kid’s imagination. The room is stocked with discarded TVs, printers, a cash register, and even a Vespa. There’s a whole station of things waiting to be disassembled, so kids can see how they work. Last year, students built their own AM radio.
Austin, who’s 37, is entering his ninth year teaching at HSC. He said donations have been flowing in since he spread the word about his shop.
“I take everything somebody gives me, and eventually we use it,” he said.
His shop class aims to hook kids in part by relating directly to their lives. Most students working on the bikes said they also ride bikes at home.
Tariq Richardson (pictured), 15, said he pedals to school from the Dwight/Kensington neighborhood on a Raleigh or a Giant mountain bike. He doesn’t have a lock, so he stashes his bike in a “secret spot” so no one will steal it. He said he doesn’t fix busted tires.
“If it goes flat, I just throw it and someone come steal it,” he said.
He said he doesn’t plan to start fixing his own bike, because he can always get another one from a friend.
Tariq may have soon have another supplier: If he successfully repairs a bike for a child, as he was learning to do on Thursday, Austin will let him fix up a bike that he can keep for himself.
Before earning that reward, Austin told another student Thursday, “you’ve got to prove to me you can do it.”
At the end of class, Jaylin, who had gotten distracted by trying to open the safe instead of focusing on his work, got up off of the floor and picked up a magnet from the electronics table. The circular magnet had been broken in half. It wouldn’t fit back together in the same way, however, because the two sides of the magnet were now repelling each other. Jaylin asked Austin why.
Austin gave a quick explanation and pledged to give a longer one next time the class meets. He said he was pleased with the question.
“That curiosity,” he said, “can go a long way.”
Wayne Austin is looking for volunteers to help staff his bike repair/ shop class. Anyone who’s interested can call the school’s main number at (203) 946-7022.
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