The Homestretch

On road to college, track star leaves troubled past in the dust


As the salutatorian of Boys and Girls High School, Johanna Jimenez will deliver a speech tonight titled “A Race Called LIfe.”

For her classmates at Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, many of whom have experienced hardships and overcome steep odds on the path to graduation, the title is a metaphor. But Jimenez, a top middle distance runner who is headed to college on a track scholarship, takes the idea literally.

“Basically, life is like a race. You set goals, then stay focused and work hard to achieve them,” she said, explaining her speech.

Jimenez’s life has been less of a marathon than a series of hurdles. She overcame her mother’s mental illness, foster homes, and her own insecurity to graduate from high school at the top of her class. There she joins another student-athlete, valedictorian Folashade Frazier, who will attend the University of Michigan.

Together, the pair provide glimmers of hope at a school that seems perpetually at risk of closure. Absorbing some of the community’s neediest students, Boys & Girls has a poor attendance rate and an even lower graduation rate. Detaching kids from their troubled personal lives is often the first hurdle teachers must clear before they can even begin instruction.

Born in Puerto Rico, Jimenez and her older brother, Nathaniel, were given up at an early age by their mother, who suffered from mental illness. She lived in three foster homes and one group home between the ages of 7 and 12.

But although her life was upended time and again during these years, she says her vision to do something great never wavered.

“I just wanted to be known,” explained Jimenez, whose 94.1 grade point average included two Advanced Placement classes in the school’s honors program.

On the track, Jimenez is nearly as elite. She was a member of the school’s city championship 3200 meter relay team. She is tall and thin with a long and powerful stride and her shy, easy-to-smile personality belies a fierce competitive drive. “She didn’t let anything get in her way from improving,” said her coach Renee Sterrett. “She’s worked so hard.”

Jimenez will run at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and has continued to train this summer. On Saturday, she and Sterrett traveled to Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island, where she was racing the 800 meters. Sitting in the stands, Jimenez thumbed through the recent plays on her mp3 players and talked about her time in foster care. She struggled to explain how its magnitude has shaped her.

“Everything that happened in my life, it happened for a reason,”  she said, shrugging. “I guess that’s why I’m so determined.”

She wasn’t always that way. She was insecure and damaged, said Melva Fernandez, the woman who adopted her when she was 12. “I could tell that she was not treated how a human being is supposed to be treated,” Fernandez said.

Under Fernandez’s roof, Johanna found stability for the first time in her life and thrived. Fernandez is a tough-love mother who had already raised six of her own daughters. She said Johanna was, at best, a mediocre eighth-grade student.

“When she first came and showed me her report card, I saw it and I said, ‘No, this is unacceptable. That can not happen,’” Fernandez said.

By freshman year, Jimenez joined the track team and dedicated herself to studies. She also joined the dance team and drum line.

“When I saw I was doing good, I felt good,” said Jimenez, who keeps in regular contact with her birth mother. “To me, school is a getaway from all my problems. All the problems I had in my life.”

Her teachers and mentors say they believe her perseverance enabled her to overcome.

“Anything she did she always did to the best of her abilities. She stood out from day one,” Linda Fung, an English honors teacher who taught Johanna for two years. “I can say she’s one of the best students I’ve ever had.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.