Nearly 200 Students and Their Guests Attend the 6th Annual Reception
Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott today hosted a reception for this year’s Remarkable Achievement Award winners and their guests at Tweed Courthouse, the New York City Department of Education headquarters. This year, 193 high school graduates from the Class of 2012 were awarded this distinction.
“I want to recognize this year’s winners for having the resilience to never give up in the face of adversity and going on to fulfill their dreams,” said Chancellor Walcott. “Our Remarkable Achievement Award winners have overcome obstacles related to immigration, violence, and parenthood. They are an inspiration to their peers, families, and all New Yorkers for their courage and commitment to earning their high school diplomas.”
Since 2006, The New York City Schools Chancellor has honored students who have overcome personal or academic challenges to earn their diplomas, and continue on to college or their careers. Principals select one student from their school to receive the Remarkable Achievement Award. A selection of their stories is below:
Jean Carlos Almonte Aims to Achieve His Dream of Becoming A CEO
When Jean Carlos Almonte moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic in 2003, he spoke little English and had to adjust to an unfamiliar culture. These challenges turned out to be just the beginning. At the age of 14, Jean Carlos became a father and assumed the responsibilities of taking care of a baby, all while still adopting a new language and a new culture.
Jean Carlos worked hard in both his part-time job and his academic coursework at Manhattan Bridges High School to become a role model for his daughter. “It’s hard to be a dad at a young age,” Jean Carlos says. “You have to become a man and be responsible.”
In addition to helping to take care of his daughter, Jean Carlos also makes sure his two younger siblings stay on the right track. His younger brother is going to be a sophomore at Manhattan Bridges next year. “I’m making sure he stays focused so he can do the same as me—complete high school and go straight to college,” Jean says. He also makes sure his younger sister knows that she can always go to him when she needs advice.
Having taken on so much responsibility for his daughter and his siblings at home, leadership roles at school came naturally to Jean Carlos. As part of a program called College for Every Student, he volunteered with community organizations to participate in activities such as tutoring younger students. Jean Carlos also became a mentor to students who were struggling with their attendance rates. He called them and tutored them on a regular basis, and there was a notable improvement in their attendance.
On top of all of the work he has done to support his classmates and family, Jean Carlos has maintained an excellent GPA and a rigorous academic course load. He has worked diligently to complete requirements for an Advanced Regents Diploma, and plans to study business administration at the City College of New York in the fall.
“My dream is to become the CEO of a company,” Jean Carlos says.
After Making the Most of his Educational Opportunity, Andy Carrera Heads to Penn State
Andy Carrera spent his early years living with his parents in the United States. Then tragedy struck.
When he was four, Andy’s mother died. Then his father’s residence card expired, forcing his father and him to return to his family’s home country of Ecuador.
However, Andy’s father knew his son would receive a better education in the United States, and he wanted to send Andy back to New York City to live with his grandmother. Andy was reluctant to leave his father at first, but his grandmother reassured him that his future would be brighter if he returned to New York. Andy returned when he was 16 years old and enrolled in the High School for Law and Public Service in Manhattan.
“The transition was really weird for me at first,” Andy says. “The school environment here is very different from how it is in Ecuador. Here, the teachers and staff are much more talkative and open with the students. They engage us and really care about our academic progress.”
Andy was concerned about his ability to speak and study in English because most of his education was taught to him in Spanish. Through hard work and determination, Andy was able to strengthen the English he had learned when he was younger. Andy challenged himself academically by taking advanced coursework. He studied Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus, AP English, and AP Physics, to name a few.
Andy’s studiousness paid off—he will attend Penn State University this fall on a full scholarship. He plans to major in electrical engineering, with the hopes of starting his own company one day.
Kelwin Diaz Overcomes Language Barriers to Receive His Advanced Regents Diploma
Kelwin Diaz started his K-12 education in a school for special needs students, where he was placed in a self-contained setting and was enrolled as an English Language Learner (ELL). By middle school, he was a former ELL and enrolled in general education classes. Now, as he wraps up his K-12 education by graduating from the Bronx High School for Writing and Communications, Kelwin will receive his Advanced Regents Diploma and go on to college.
“At first, it was pretty hard for me to adjust to the new settings because the students were pretty different,” Kelwin says. “I kind of felt different from everyone else. But after a while, I started to adjust and get used to it.”
At the beginning of high school, Kelwin put in extra time with his teachers to make sure he was keeping up with his core content areas Kelwin had to work especially hard in extra classes to get caught up in the core content areas. But Kelwin not only caught up with general education classes, he went above and beyond, taking all of the Advanced Placement classes offered by his school and earning a 90 or higher on four different Regents exams, including a 98 on the U.S. History exam.
Chemistry was Kelwin’s favorite class in high school and inspired his choice to study science when he begins classes this fall at the College of Brockport.
Kelwin says there is one golden rule for academic success that any high school student can follow: don’t slack off. “Don’t give up, and keep pressing on. The moment you start slacking off is the moment it will hit you even harder. You just have to keep working at progress every day.”
Kevin Foster Looks to Apply CTE Skills While Studying Construction Management
Growing up with little support from his parents and being raised in poverty did not stop Kevin Foster from following his dreams. Because of changes in his living situation and extreme family hardships, Kevin failed most of his classes during his sophomore year at Ralph McKee High School in Staten Island. While most people would have buckled under the pressure, Kevin stayed strong.
“It was really difficult, but I knew that the only way to improve my life was to go to school,” Kevin says. “I knew that getting an education would open doors so I could have a better life in the future.”
“Kevin has shown remarkable strength in character,” says Londa Marsigliano, a social worker at McKee. “His determination to have his dreams for success come true is unwavering.”
Kevin was forced to move to Long Island because of family trouble, but he requested to return to Staten Island to continue his career and technical education (CTE) studies at McKee. In 2010, Kevin brought his average up from a 50 to an 80. This past fall, Kevin achieved a 91 average in his classes.
“I just had a lot of help from the teachers,” he says. “My attendance was a big issue. The work becomes easy if you go to class every day.”
Kevin lives with his half-brother and is working part-time seven days a week, in order to contribute to their living expenses. He also has an internship at Blade Contracting, a Staten Island-based construction company. He plans to pursue a four-year degree in construction management technology at the New England Institute of Technology. He has received a multitude of awards and scholarships, from organizations including the DOE, United Federation of Teachers, Fab for Life Foundation, and Workforce1 Program.
Kevin’s advice to his peers is to keep their sights focused on success after high school, college, and beyond. “You really just have to look to the future and see the bigger picture. Once you graduate, and once you go to college, I believe it gets better.”
Born Blind, Daniel Gillen Prepares to Head to Haverford
Born completely blind, Daniel Gillen has learned to adapt to his surroundings. Daniel’s education began in a program for visually challenged students, but by middle school his teachers and parents both realized that he was more than capable of making it on his own in a traditional New York City public school.
Daniel went to Beacon High School in Manhattan after graduating middle school with an Overall Academic Achievement Award. “Getting around Beacon was a little bit difficult, but with some help of a school paraprofessional I was able to create a mental map of the school and eventually learn my way around without any assistance,” Daniel says.
Daniel’s teachers have proclaimed that his thirst for knowledge is uncanny. Daniel did not just stick to core content classes—he ventured into the arts. He has taken African drumming and sculpting classes and has even participated in the school’s drama program. “I felt like I was breaking barriers,” he says. “My blindness wasn’t a handicap; I had the power and capabilities to create something beautiful.”
Daniel not only challenged himself in school, but outside as well. Daniel has studied piano for over 11 years at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at Lighthouse International. He has also mastered Braille and was a finalist in the national Braille Challenge. This fall, Daniel will attend Haverford College where he will study physics and minor in music.
From NYC to Malaysia and Back Again, Kevin Koo’s Next Stop is Buffalo State University
Kevin Koo’s father passed away when he was just 10 years old, and his life entered a tumultuous back-and-forth period. Without the support of his father, Kevin’s mother was unable to continue supporting the family in the United States, and she was forced to take Kevin with her back to her native country, Malaysia. Nevertheless, Kevin did not let this series of setbacks dampen his spirit.
“I took it one day at a time,” Kevin says. “I didn’t think about tomorrow. I was thinking, if I can get through today, I’ll get through tomorrow.”
When he was in 10th grade, Kevin moved back by himself to the United States and was living with family friends in New York City—until they, too, were no longer able to support him. Kevin has been living on his own since 2010, as his mother cannot get a visa to return to the United States. He lives on his own, and uses survivor benefits from Social Security to support himself financially.
“I get support from my mom,” Kevin says. “We talk on the phone. It’s hard being away from her. I know how she’s really upset when I go through tough times, because renting a room is hard. They see you’re a teen, and they don’t treat you as well as if you’re a grown-up.”
Even through all of the changes in his home life, Kevin has remained dedicated to his education and focused on graduating. He has excelled in multiple Advanced Placement and College Now classes during his time at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan. Kevin plans to attend Buffalo State University in the fall, where he intends to study business administration.
“I plan to be a diplomat, work in embassies,” he says. “I wouldn’t even mind working in the United Nations.”
Nathaniel Loucks Worked Hard and Traveled Far To Get His High School Diploma
Nathaniel Loucks has struggled to overcome serious life obstacles in order to graduate from the Gateway School of Environmental Research and Technology in the Bronx. To get to school every day, Nathaniel had a two-hour subway commute from his temporary housing residence in Brooklyn. “You get used to it after a while, but it was hard,” Nathaniel says.
In addition to his long commute, Nathaniel worked five days a week at a restaurant to help support his family. His shift ended at 1:00 a.m., but he didn’t let that affect his drive to succeed in school. “I did my homework during my breaks at work—and pulled a lot of all-nighters.”
In addition to being remarkably driven, Nathaniel has consistently demonstrated his passion for academics and his natural leadership skills. He served as a class coordinator, maintained his school’s laptop computers, and provided support to his fellow students participating in the iLearn program, which incorporates a blended learning model in which students take some classes online. “I would organize their notes, quiz them, and basically make sure they were ready to take whatever tests they were preparing to take.”
Nathaniel relied on a sense of hope for the future and a steadfast confidence in his own abilities in order to achieve his goal of graduating from high school. His advice to fellow students? “Don’t believe you can’t make it. If you try hard enough, you can make anything happen.”
Nathaniel will attend the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the fall, where he plans to study forensics.
Down Two Hips and One Kidney, Taiwo Majekodunmi Finds the Wherewithal to Achieve, And Is Now Headed to Syracuse
When Taiwo Majekodunmi was 11 years old, she started feeling sick and developed rashes on her face. However, she did not have a cold, or even an allergic reaction. Taiwo had lupus.
By her junior year at the Scholars’ Academy in Queens, one of her kidneys failed, which caused an infection in her knees and hips. Above and beyond her lupus-related issues, Taiwo now couldn't walk and for a year and a half was confined to a hospital bed.
But Taiwo did not let this confinement serve as a constraint. Tutors came to her hospital room, and between four doses of antibiotics a day, she was able to take Advanced Placement courses while bed-ridden. She earned a 91 on the Algebra II Regents, a 95 on Global History, a 97 on English Language Arts, and a 98 on U.S. History.
After clearing the infections, undergoing two hip replacements, and receiving a kidney transplant, Taiwo's health improved, and four weeks after her transplant, she was back in school.
Taiwo is graduating near the top of her class and will head this fall to Syracuse University, where she plans to study neuroscience with the hope of becoming pre-med. “I just always believed that no circumstance is permanent, and I had to have faith that I could do it,” Taiwo says. “And I did.”
Proud Eagle Scout, Andrew Meketa proves that “Disabled does not mean unable”
Did you know that only 5% of all Boy Scouts ever become Eagle Scouts?
Andrew Meketa is one of the rare Boy Scouts to earn this prestigious honor, which is all the more impressive considering he is autistic.
A Staten Island native, Andrew is graduating from the borough’s Richard H. Hungerford School, a District 75 school where the motto is “Never dis our abilities!" Andrew’s parents say at Hungerford he learned valuable real-world skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the outside world.
Andrew was diagnosed with autism as a boy, and has worked diligently to reach his goals of earning a high school diploma and achieving the coveted rank of Eagle Scout. Andrew's parents put him in the Cub Scouts as a child as a way for him to socialize with other children. He fell in love with the program and stuck with it. Now, he has gone from a Cub Scout to a Boy Scout to an Eagle Scout.
Along the way, Andrew discovered his hidden talent for carpentry. Now an avid woodworker, he will be attending the Lifestyles School in Staten Island in the fall to sharpen his carpentry skills—he hopes to one day work for the Home Depot in the Carpentry Department.
Now Cool, Calm, and Collected, Bryan Nieves is Set for College
Bryan Nieves has proven that anything is possible through a little self-discipline and hard work. At the age of 5, Bryan was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed due to his lack of control over his emotions. As a child, he would lash out verbally and struggle with bouts of depression. Even at the beginning of his high school career, it was difficult for Bryan to control his anger, especially when he was constantly being picked on and bullied by some of his classmates. Bryan’s anger and frustration caused him to skip school and fall behind on his studies.
As he grew older, and a bit wiser, Bryan learned to control his temper. He credits his accomplishment to the help and support he received from the faculty at the J.M. Rapport School for Career Development in the Bronx. “My teachers and counselors were always there for me if I needed to talk,” Bryan says. “I was able to learn how to deal with my emotions accordingly with the help of the school principal, my guidance counselor, and my family. They have all been an incredible support system for me.”
In the past two years, Bryan has not cut a single class, his grades have improved, and he now enjoys going to school. In his free time, Bryan volunteers at the Tremont branch of the New York Public Library, where he uses his talent as an artist to draw pictures that are used as decoration for the library. Despite his numerous obstacles, Bryan has earned a diploma and has been accepted to Bronx Community College, where he will begin his college courses in the fall.
Saved by a Social Worker, Ricki Rodriguez Now Looks to Pay it Forward
“Growing up, I was really anxious,” says Ricki Rodriguez. “I got bullied for a little while when I started high school. It was hard for me to stay in school and to concentrate. I felt like it was me against the world, and I would act rebellious. I would not listen to my parents and I broke curfew. I started hanging out around the wrong people which led me to do bad things that I would later regret.”
Now, as Ricki looks back on the last few years as he prepares to graduate from high school, he recognizes that his life did not get any easier—he just grew stronger. His brother committed suicide, and there were times when his parents would give up on him.
“There was a point when I was going to be taken away from my parents,” he says now. “I was going to be sent to a residential facility, and that really scared me and made me want to change my ways.”
Ricki found the right fit at the ReStart Academy, a District 79 program. Ricki's school is the result of a collaboration with St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, which is where the school is located. Through the resulting day treatment program, CARES, students in need of substance abuse or mental health treatment receive both academic and social-emotional support on site.
Ricki says the high expectations his school social worker, Ilse Gomez, consistently maintained for him helped him work his way through these difficult years. “She was one of the few people who didn’t give up on me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
As a result, when Ricki starts classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College this fall, he plans to study social work.
Now, says Ricki, “I'm just happy with the person I am today.”
Inspired By Tragedy, Khadijah Smith Aspires To Become A Police Officer To Help Others
When Khadijah Smith was a young girl, she made a promise to her mother to stay dedicated to her schoolwork, graduate high school, and continue on to college. That promise has been central to Khadijah’s success, as she prepares to graduate from the High School for Youth and Community Development in Brooklyn as one of the ten highest achieving students in her class.
However, Khadijah’s success did not come without extreme hardship. Near the start of Khadijah’s freshman year, her mother was shot and killed before her eyes, and died in her arms.
“Khadijah has developed a reservoir of strength and vision for her life in response to extreme tragedy,” says Principal Marie Prendergast. “While this tragedy would be enough to send any person off their educational track, it only inspired Khadijah to set her sights higher.”
She joined her school’s PSAL basketball team as a freshman, which was difficult at first because she was not as outspoken as some of the other players. With time, Khadijah gained respect from her teammates and served this year as a co-captain. “They know how passionate I am and how much of a team player I am,” she says. “It was a great experience.”
Humanities courses were of particular interest to Khadijah, and her dedication to her coursework led her to make the honor roll every single semester.
Her interest in social issues, coupled with her experience with the loss of her mother, inspired her decision to study criminal justice when she goes on to Farmingdale State College in the fall. She hopes to one day become a police officer.
“I’ve been through so much, and I just don’t like to see how criminals get away with stuff,” she says. “Especially what happened to my mom—I just don’t want that to happen to other people, and I want to defend people who can’t defend themselves.”
Khadijah plans to dedicate her high school diploma to her mother. “She did everything for me. She was a single mom. I was inspired by everything that she did for me. She was my role model. She raised me to be the person that I am today.”
After A Massive Earthquake Ravaged His Hometown, Bernie St. Pierre Has Started Anew in New York City
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Bernie St. Pierre’s home country of Haiti in 2010, his life was turned upside down. Two weeks later, at the age of 14, with no experience speaking English and with only some of his belongings, Bernie was forced to leave his hometown and move with his older sister to the United States. He ended up living with his aunt in Queens, where he enrolled with his sister in the Humanities and the Arts High School (HAHS).
While at HAHS, Bernie studied and studied to master the English language. “I was able to pick up English so quickly thanks to the help of my teachers,” he says. “They were nurturing and patient with me. It was because of their support that I was able to pass my English regents exam on my first try.” In fact, Bernie passed all of his required Regents in just two years.
Bernie missed his family dearly—his father was and still is in Haiti—but they served as his biggest source of his motivation. “I didn’t want to let my parents down—they were counting on me,” Bernie says. “I knew I had to be a role model for my younger brothers. I had to be brave and show them that anything is possible.”
Bernie’s perseverance and hard work helped him earn a diploma. He plans on attending Nassau Community College and studying computer science.
Amidst Myriad Medical and Familial Issues, Tashelle Woods Triumphs Over Tragedy
This fall, Tashelle Woods will become the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and the first person in her family to attend college. Tashelle had to overcome many obstacles including losing both of her parents, as well as one of her half-sisters and three of her half-brothers. She also dealt with many health problems including Lymphedema, asthma, high blood pressure, and a cancerous mass, which had to be removed from her thyroid.
“I don’t have any idea why all of this has happened to me,” she says. “I honestly feel like people are picked to handle certain things and people are given the strength to deal with certain things. I don’t ever question it, I just deal with it.”
Thanks in part to the support of her Assistant Principal, Sarah McCoy, and her college advisor, Jennifer Alardo, Tashelle has been able to deal with the cards she’s been dealt. Tashelle’s best friend provided support—Tashelle has lived with her for the last year—and her grandmother, Hazel Woods, provided inspiration. “Education was key to her,” Tashelle says. “She didn’t care about anything else.”
After overcoming chronic absenteeism during her freshman year, Tashelle became involved in different activities at the School for Legal Studies in Brooklyn, working on the yearbook committee (she was recently selected as Most Outspoken) and a breast cancer fundraiser. She also holds an after-school job. For her improvement in attendance, the Mayor’s Task Force on Truancy and Absenteeism honored Tashelle.
This fall, Tashelle will study at Alfred State University, where she plans to major in biology with the hope of becoming a pediatrician.
“I spent so much time in the doctor’s office already,” she says. “So why not?”
Serving as a Mother to Her Own Mom, Ramona Wright Finds A Way to Thrive
Halfway through her high school career, Ramona Wright had had enough. Her dad, who had come back into her life after a long absence, was now leaving again. Her mom, whom Ramona had been bathing, feeding, and caring for since she was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, while Ramona was still in elementary school, was deteriorating with every passing day. Her brother could not stand the situation and left. Ramona just dug in. She found a transfer school that accommodated her caregiver role and academic goals.
“I’m proud that I’ve kept my sanity,” she says. “Most people tell me they’d be so depressed if they had been through this, that they would have hurt themselves, done drugs, or drank. That’s not me. I’m very strong-willed.”
Ramona has excelled at her new school, Cascades High School in Manhattan. Her attendance and academics have improved, and she has held three jobs through the school’s Learning to Work program. This month, her mom’s dream is going to come true.
“All she wants to do is see me graduate from high school,” Ramona says.
Ramona has even bigger plans. She is enrolling in CUNY this fall to study nursing. “I think that’s my calling because I’ve been doing it for so long. I tend to enjoy it. I like to help people.”
Principal Paul Rotondo marvels at Ramona, calling her “wise beyond her age.” He says, “This is a young woman who has been able to hold a family together when others have walked out, recognize when things weren’t working in her own life, and focus on finishing school. These aren’t the easiest things to do.”
To Ramona, she has tried to make the most of the cards she was dealt.
“Life is too short to always frown about everything,” she says. “I just try to stay happy.”
The Fund for Public Schools is working to build a community of New York City public school alumni who can help keep the progress going in our City’s schools. This year’s graduating seniors and all New York City public school alumni and friends are encouraged to sign up with the first citywide alumni organization at http://www.nycgrads.org/. The opportunity for the millions of public school alumni to come together to help today’s students is enormous, so please join today!