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Tim Lisante with students. (Photo provided by the Department of Education)

Tim Lisante with students. (Photo provided by the Department of Education)

How running a school on Rikers Island shaped the superintendent of New York’s little-known District 79

In Tim Lisante’s first year as an assistant principal at a school for youth on Rikers Island thirty years ago, he met a student with four strikes against her. She had a learning disability, substance abuse problem, no permanent home in the city. And she was pregnant.

Some might have seen a lost cause. Lisante saw a student in crisis.

Three decades later, Lisante is the superintendent of New York City’s District 79, which consists of over 14,000 students who have fallen behind in high school, been involved in the criminal justice system, or who have special needs such as drug treatment, job training or child care.

Years ago, the district used to include transfer schools, which serve over-age and under-credited students, and other small high schools. Now it is a network of programs for students learning outside of traditional school settings.

Lisante said he is especially focused on the formerly incarcerated youth he first saw when he started as assistant principal — because they often need the most help.

New York has come under scrutiny for how it treats youth in the criminal justice system. It is one of two states nationwide that still prosecutes all youth as adults when they turn 16, though legislators are engaged in a battle this year to change that. A 2014 report by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara found a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the adolescent facilities on Rikers Island, and the city proposed a plan to move 16- and 17-year olds from the island to a facility in the Bronx.

Against that backdrop, Lisante is working to restore hope. He said the worst part of his job is seeing teenagers who seem to have given up, but the best part is watching those same young adults turn a corner. We met Lisante at a conference for “transition specialists,” who help students regain their footing after they leave detention centers. It’s one way he’s trying to make sure these students get a second chance, he said.

“When I first went to Rikers, I had a whole different picture,” Lisante said. But once he was there, he remembers thinking, “This is it? These are the most egregious kids in New York City? I just realized they were a lot like my own sons.”

We talked to Lisante about his work in District 79, how he plans to help New York City’s court-involved youth, and whether New York state’s graduation requirements are too tough.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What got you interested in this type of work?

I worked in a vocational high school in the South Bronx and I became assistant principal of special ed there. One day, I saw this ad and all it said was “Assistant principal, Rikers.” … So I went to Rikers and the funny thing is, I never went to Rikers before I took the job. I interviewed in Manhattan and I remember driving over the bridge and seeing all these jails and that razor wire and saying maybe I should turn around. But that was 30 years ago.

When I got to Rikers, I really found that was my niche because the students [have] so many needs, multiple needs. I met a girl in my first year who was pregnant, had a learning disability, was homeless, and had a substance abuse issue. So you need four different people to address [those issues]. We can take care of the learning disability through our teachers, but we couldn’t really help with the homelessness or the substance abuse.

It’s really exciting work and it’s a population that really gets overlooked, that has no real advocates.

You said you grew up about five miles away.

I went to Holy Cross, a Catholic school in Flushing. Literally, it’s less than five miles from Rikers, but my experience was so great in high school. That’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. I love school.

So then when I go to Rikers … and I see the experience that 16- and 17-year olds have, it’s so different from what it should be. The worst experience of my career is seeing kids who give up hope at 16 and 17. What we’re trying to do is renew that hope.

There’s nothing that we like better, that I like better, than these graduations in June. One of the best things about the graduations is looking at the parents. These parents have been through a lot. They come like two hours before the ceremony, they’re so happy. They don’t want to leave after it’s over. Everybody’s taking pictures and everything because their children have come a long way. Those graduations … make this work really worthwhile.

How do you tackle the hopelessness?

One of the things that we are really proud of in District 79 is we have a very good counselor-to-student ratio. We have social workers, guidance counselors, that are really, really dedicated and we give them training. I’m also concerned about them because they’re hearing horrible stories every single day, you know, in small groups and in individual counseling.

A lot of issues we can tackle in a group during the advisory. A lot of them have to be tackled individually because there are so many needs and it’s so hard to get teenagers to open up. For example, I mentioned homelessness. Kids don’t admit that they’re homeless.

But you’re often still able to reach them?

Yeah, it’s the greatest thing … The students all get a photo ID when they come in and then we always contrast that photo ID with their graduation picture and, you know, it’s night and day. Like I said before, it’s a harrowing experience to be in any [of these] situations and you remember what that student was like when they first got in. To see them persist, and overcome and pass these Regents, and get a high school diploma, or a high school equivalency, that’s a great thing for that student, for that student’s family and their community.

You mentioned high school equivalency diplomas. When and how do you help students pursue that option?

Pathway to Graduation is basically the biggest high school equivalency program for students under 21 [in the city]… We prepare students to get the skills they need to pass the exam. We help them with college admissions, pay for the CUNY waiver and college counseling, so the neat thing about Pathways to Graduation is it’s more than just a test prep class.

We have about probably 75 of these sites through New York City and they’re in traditional high schools, like [DeWitt] Clinton [in the Bronx], Edward R. Murrow High School [in Brooklyn]. We’re also in college campuses … [But] a lot of students don’t want that kind of setting anymore. We offer paid internships within hospitals, a wide range of job-shadowing they can do, a variety of internship experiences, all kinds of jobs.

I met two students who have children in the city’s LYFE program [which provides free child care] at DeWitt Clinton High School. They go upstairs to our Pathways to Graduation program, and now they’re going to Co-op Tech [which provides career certification courses for students]. Those are students who are in three of our programs simultaneously.

You have a lot to manage. What is your priority right now?

We look at the students that are the most at risk, the furthest away from a diploma, and that’s why we are putting so much into the transition services at Rikers. To me, they’re the furthest away from the high school diploma. It’s a really, really difficult thing. The same thing for the kids in drug treatment. Supporting those students … so they stick and they stay and they don’t drop out, that’s our biggest priority. That’s our biggest mission, to help those students that are fading to get back on track and to stay on track.

What’s the hardest part of helping court-involved youth?

The hardest thing about these programs is there’s what we call a rolling register, kids come in and out every day. Schools are not built like that. Schools are built on school years and semesters. Again, when I taught [at Rikers], I’d give a test on a Friday, I’d have three new kids come in on Thursday and three leave on Thursday. So that’s why [it’s easier] to work with students that are sentenced because … they know they’re going to be there every day. But most of our students are awaiting the outcome of a case. It makes it very difficult.

That speaks to the urgency of the work. You know, again, I came from a high school. We had four years to work with students. We don’t have four years [at Rikers]. We’ve got 40 days.

That’s why every day is important. Every minute counts. We ask these students first day, where are you going to go to school when you get out? Do you want to go back to your school? We’ll make that connection. Do you want a new school? Do you want an arts school? Whatever it is, we put the wheels in motion day one.

As you said, the average student is only enrolled at East River Academy for 45 days. What are the three most important things to do in that time?

One of them is to get them the social-emotional [stability]. It’s an unbelievable process when you get arrested and go through the court system and the handcuffs and the central booking and all this. And then, we expect students right away once they get to us to take an assessment test. How much do you know about math? So we really have to look at that piece first and be very welcoming and comforting and get them settled in and make sure their parents know where they’re at physically and educationally.

And the city has introduced “transition counselors” for youth leaving detention centers. Why is that role important?

What we’ve found is that students go back to school, they do well, but they don’t always stick. So the transition specialists support the student, and the family, and the receiving school, all the way through graduation. A lot of times that first placement doesn’t work out, so OK, let’s find something else. You want a vocational school, let’s do that. You want a high school equivalency, let’s do that. [We do] not give up on students at any point.

What’s a day in the life of a transition specialist like?

We’re really focused on the students’ aspirations and the students’ dreams. What do they want to do next once they graduate? [We] kind of plan backwards from there. So what the transition specialist does is creates that plan, co-creates it with a student. The student has ownership of it. And then from there, they check in against that plan weekly or every other week. Transition specialists work both in the facility and then in the community.

When we transition a student and we know they have a community-based support, we’re really comfortable that we handed that student off to that organization. It’s the kids that don’t have any support in the community that we’re really concerned about. We have an increasing number of foster care kids and homeless kids, so when they get out they really have very little support and our transition specialists have to do a lot more connecting of resources than [for] a typical student.

Do you think state officials are doing enough to provide opportunities for your students to graduate? Even the safety-net options require passing multiple Regents exams.

They’re on the right track. They’re doing more and more and we’ve met with the Board of Regents on this issue and on the issue of a high school equivalency being considered as a diploma and not a drop-out … The high school equivalency, it’s a very tough test to pass, and I think these students should get full credit for graduating because it’s a viable option to go on to higher education.

What do you want the world to know about these students?

That’s the word I use all the time. They’re students and they’re kids, they’re children, they’re young. When I first went to Rikers, I had a whole different picture. [Then I realized], this is it? These are the most egregious kids in New York City? I just realized they were a lot like my own sons. They are teenagers. And everybody deserves a second chance.

That’s my big message. I’ve seen so many of these students get turned around and head in the right direction. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about them. We hear about the recidivism and the re-arrests, which is a very small percentage of our students. Again, most of them are low-level offenders and this is a transformative experience that they have with us, and then through these transition specialists, connect into the schools and go onto graduate and have happy lives.