Including the stories of young people who apply to college from homeless shelters, as undocumented immigrants, and while facing turbulent homes, pregnancies, and health crises, Hold Fast to Dreams offers what Booklist calls “a profound examination of…the kinds of reforms needed to make higher education and the upward mobility it promises more accessible.” It provides hope in its portrayal of the extraordinary intelligence, resilience, and everyday heroics of the young people whose futures are too often lamented or ignored and whose voices, insights, and vision our collegesand our countrydesperately need.
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About the Author
Beth Zasloff has taught writing at New York University, at Johns Hopkins University, and as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools. She
is the co-author, with Edgar M. Bronfman, of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance and currently directs the Midtown Workmen's Circle School, a
progressive Jewish community. She has a BA in English from Yale University and an MA from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Joshua
Steckel is College Counselor at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, a member of the New York City Outward Bound Schools network. He has been working as a teacher and a counselor in New York City public and private schools since 2000. He has an MSEd in school counseling from Hunter College, a BA in English from Duke University, and an MA in English from Johns Hopkins University. Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel are married and live with their three children in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
Riding Backward: Nkese and Dwigh
Just before beginning a new job as college counselor at the Secondary School for Research, a public school in Brooklyn, New York, Joshua Steckel was greeted by a member of the upcoming senior class with this e-mail message:
hi im nkese (pronounce nik-a-ce) im glad that you email me because many of seniors need help with the college process. me for one because i have many college applications sent 2 my houses but i havent filled none. SO i appreciate and look forward 2 workin with you in da comin school year
Josh was intimidated, both by Nkese's apparent low skill level and by the hope her message expressed. Her e-mail, a response to one he had sent introducing himself to the senior class, voiced the expectation that he would fill a need he wasn't sure he could. He had no experience working with low-income, inner-city kids beyond the few scholarship students he had counseled in his previous job at Birch Wathen Lenox, a private school on New York City's Upper East Side. He didn't know what it would be like to guide this set of students through the consuming drama of the college application process, or whether the success he'd had placing wealthy students at elite schools would translate to the task that lay before him: helping students who would mostly be the first in their families to go to college.
Josh wrote back to Nkese that he looked forward to meeting her and that he would appreciate her help contacting the other seniors. "i already spread da wrd 4 u," she replied within seconds.
The Secondary School for Research, where Josh began in the fall of 2006, was one of three schools located in the John Jay building, which occupies most of a block on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The old John Jay High School had been shut down as part of the city's plan to replace large, failing schools with multiple small, nurturing schools housed in the same building. The population of the Secondary School for Research in 2006 was 46 percent Latino, 40 percent African American, 8 percent Asian, and 6 percent white. Eighty percent of students were economically disadvantaged by federal standards and received free or reduced price lunch. Kids came mostly from neighborhoods outside Park Slope, including Sunset Park, Flatbush, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and East New York.
The old John Jay High School had a history of violence: in 1997, the New York Times reported, it had "more assaults, robberies, and acts of drug and weapon possession than any high school in the city." When Josh began, incidents had decreased to levels on par with many other New York City public schools. But John Jay's reputation still lingered in the upper-middle class neighborhood. The pizza shop across the street from the school building posted a sign reading, "No students allowed before 5 p.m.," though at lunchtime, a pizza shop a few blocks away was crowded with the students from the highly regarded elementary school nearby, PS 321. At the end of the school day, police officers gathered outside the John Jay building to herd students to the subway.
Students and parents had to pass through a metal detector to enter the John Jay building. They emptied their pockets, removed their belts and jewelry, then placed their backpacks on the conveyer belt. If the light was red, they needed to step to the side and spread their arms as uniformed New York Police Department safety officers passed wands over their bodies. In response to a recent cell phone ban by schools chancellor Joel Klein, students also had to hand their phones to safety agents or school aides, who would put them in Ziploc bags and returned them at the end of the day.
Jill Bloomberg, the principal of the Secondary School for Research, was a vocal critic of the metal detectors. "We take our students extremely seriously," she is quoted as saying on the website Inside Schools. "We say 'we are educating you because the future is yours. We're going to hand the world to you.' But scanning says 'we don't trust that you're going to come to the school without a weapon.'" The building now had safety statistics equal to or better than schools without metal detectors. But the process for removing school metal detectors, once installed, was complex and difficult. On top of this, the principals of the other two schools in the building, the Secondary Schools for Law and Journalism, wanted the metal detectors to stay. Security agents occasionally found weapons, and the scanners, these principals believed, kept everyone safer.
At Birch Wathen Lenox, the Upper East Side private school where Josh had been a college counselor prior to coming to the Secondary School for Research, conflict over the school entrance had centered on complaints that parents were blocking the lobby with their Bugaboo Frogs, the wide, brightly colored strollers that cost over $700. Josh's office had been located just past the entrance desk, across from the headmaster's study. The Birch Wathen Lenox college counselor played a central role in the school administration. Parents saw college placement as the final evaluation of the time and money they had invested in their children's education and looked to Josh as the expert insider who would secure their child's spot at an elite college.
Josh had started at Birch Wathen Lenox as a teacher, then worked as college counselor for three years. Though he formed strong attachments to his students and wanted to help them, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the ways his advocacy gave a leg up to students already in a position of significant privilege. As he learned more about the field of college admissions, he felt drawn toward work with students for whom the issue was not college choice, but college access.
In hiring Josh, the principal of the Secondary School for Research, Jill Bloomberg, aimed to provide public school students with the kind of intensive one-on-one support and advocacy that Josh had given his students at Birch Wathen Lenox. In the New York City public school system, there is no position called "college counselor": at most schools, the work of supporting students with their college admissions process is neglected or folded into the jobs of already overworked guidance counselors. At new small schools, however, principals have increasingly sought ways to establish the role. Jill used a salary line in her budget called "Community Coordinator" to create a full-time position for Josh. Jill knew that many of her students, by virtue of their race and family income, were not expected to graduate high school, much less go on to college. A central part of her mission was to build a school culture in which all students saw themselves as college-bound.
The three schools in the John Jay building shared the college office, which was three flights down from the rest of the Secondary School for Research. Josh knew that this distance would make it difficult for him to get to know the students and start his work with them. One of his first goals was to interview each senior for the counselor letters of recommendation he would write. As part of his training at Birch Wathen Lenox, Josh had attended the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions, where he learned strategies for producing successful application packages. Quotes from individual meetings with students were "like gold" for his letters of recommendation, Josh was told by the counselor from Milton Academy, an elite Massachusetts prep school.
Nkese took the first step in arranging to meet a few days after school began. She wrote in an e-mail,
I would like to set up a meeting sometime next week wed at lunch. In this meeting i will bring about 13 different college application that was sent to me. This way i can discuss my option.
Nkese wore her hair long and straight and dressed in close fitting, brightly colored clothes. She had a direct, confident manner, and Josh had the sense that she was sizing him up: his curly hair and crooked glasses, the clutter of cardboard boxes and makeshift cubicle partitions that separated his desk from those designated for the other two schools. Josh had been concerned that his office would have too little privacy. At Birch Wathen Lenox he had grown to understand the college application process as a fraught, vulnerable time for students and parents, a moment of transition when they looked back on their lives. Though he had no formal training, he had found himself in the role of psychological counselor, mediating family confrontations and emotional breakdowns.
Nkese set down the applications she had brought. They had been sent to her home by colleges that relied heavily on mass-market mailings, attracting students by making them feel as though they had been recruited. Josh said that before they discussed specific colleges, he'd like her to speak about herself. What were her interests and goals? What had her experience of the school been like? Who was in her family?
Nkese spoke readily, and Josh took notes on his white legal pad. Nkese had been born in Philadelphia. When she was very young, her family had lived in a large apartment in a neighborhood she remembered as quiet and safe, on Chestnut Street. Her father was a chef at a hotel and then worked at an airline. When Nkese was five and her brother Rasheed was four, their father was killed. Nkese did not want to say more about him.
Three years later, the family moved to Brooklyn, to the small apartment in East Flatbush where they now lived. Nkese's mother, Peggy, worked a night shift as a nurse's aide, and usually arrived home around midnight. Nkese and Rasheed shared responsibility for housework and for taking care of their younger sister, Risa. Nkese also worked up to fifteen hours each week at McDonald's to earn extra cash.
At the age of thirteen, Nkese told Josh, she had decided that she would be "the girl who gets out of the 'hood." Her test scores in elementary school had been "through the roof." In middle school she had been admitted into a specialized program, but, she said, she was distracted by socializing. She knew by eighth grade that she "had to shape it up" if she was going to make it to college. "I used to say I was going to Princeton," she said.
Nkese had started at the Secondary School for Research in ninth grade determined to "do something constructive" for her future. But instead of the high school experience she envisioned, Nkese found "a lot of confusion." In 2001, three existing middle schools had been combined into one and moved to the John Jay building. As the old John Jay High School was phased out class by class, the new school would grow into a school for grades six through twelve. In 2003, when Nkese entered ninth grade, this new school, the Secondary School for Law, Journalism and Research, was divided into three separate schools. Students and staff still remaining from the old John Jay were randomly distributed among the three schools.
The result, in Nkese's account, was chaos. There were "fights through lunch, things of that nature." Teachers came and went throughout the year, and kids "passed their classes by luck." Nkese remembered her first year of high school as mostly wasted time. "I knew there was something wrong with our education, I knew it from day one," Nkese said. "I knew we weren't learning what high schoolers were supposed to learn."
Jill Bloomberg began as principal during Nkese's sophomore year. Nkese saw that Jill was determined to create order and structure at the school and was willing to involve students in making change. In the absence of student government, Nkese and her group of friends took it upon themselves to be the voice of student opinion. Nkese would create surveys and petitions that she would distribute among her peers, then present her findings to the school leadership. Nkese and Jill often disagreed, and Nkese felt bitter when her proposals were not accepted. She felt that the administration "really treated us like kids, and we had to fight for everything."
In tenth grade, Nkese said, "we advocated for a little bit of flexibility in our schedules. That was something that most high schoolers have, and we didn't see why we didn't." In eleventh grade, Nkese focused on what the school lacked in preparing students for college. An after-school program offered an SAT class for the Secondary School for Law, and Nkese pushed to open spots for students from the Secondary School for Research. She knew from TV, she said, that she should take the SAT in eleventh grade and was angry that, the previous year, she had been advised to wait until twelfth.
One of Nkese's strongest desires was for Advanced Placement (AP) classes, a campaign she and her friends had also waged during their junior year. Josh had spoken with the principal, Jill, during the summer before his arrival about the decision to offer AP courses. The Department of Education was creating shared AP programs in buildings that housed several high schools, and the Secondary School for Research could opt in. Jill was ambivalent: she preferred classes that reached students at multiple skill levels to those that pulled out the top performers. Every student should have access to college preparatory classes, she believed, just as every student should have access to college. But Jill had finally agreed to offer the AP classes: as she and Josh had discussed, they were an opportunity to communicate, to students and colleges, that kids at the Secondary School for Research were capable of advanced academic work. To Nkese, this was a chance finally to take what she knew were "real" college preparatory classes, with the same curricula offered by top high schools.
As a senior now, Nkese was proud of the ways she and her friends had helped to improve the Secondary School for Research. The school was "a totally different world from when I was a freshman," she told Josh. This fall, she was enrolled in AP English Language and Composition and AP U.S. History, and now they even had a college counselor. But these changes also drove home the anger Nkese felt when she looked back on the gaps in her high school education. Josh was struck by the way her resentment seemed to extend even to the younger students who would have opportunities she didn't. "Everything we did helped other students," she said when she reflected back, "but at the same time we didn't reap most of those benefits."
Nkese's goal in the college process was to "get out of here": to leave New York City. Nobody in the previous year's graduating class had gone to a residential college. Before Josh arrived, the college process had been handled by the school's general guidance counselor, Alissa Lembo, in addition to all her other responsibilities. Alissa had attended several relevant trainings that year and worked hard to help support students. Sixty percent had been accepted to college, the vast majority to the City University of New York (CUNY), which includes both four-year and two-year options. Nkese said she would not be applying to CUNY schools. There was nothing wrong with them, but they would be like "thirteenth grade," just a continuation of high school.
Josh asked Nkese if there were any schools she had in mind. She mentioned Temple University, in Philadelphia, and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, which her class had visited on a bus trip the previous year, led by a teacher who was an alumna. Nkese had not heard of most private colleges other than those in the Ivy League.
Before the meeting, Josh had given some thought to how strong a candidate Nkese would be at selective liberal arts colleges. Though he hadn't met her, he had looked over her test scores and transcript and spoken with some of her teachers. Josh had been shocked to see the low grades many students received, and Nkese's transcript had stood out, with a cumulative average over 90 percent. Nkese's tenth grade history teacher told Josh that Nkese was the best student she had ever had. Though the teacher had a graduate degree in history, she said that every night she had to "go home and prepare for Nkese," who would read ahead and come to class with challenging questions. Jill Bloomberg described how, during her sophomore year, Nkese and a small group of students organized the most impressive "student action" she had ever witnessed. A white student new to the school had made racist comments and some students were threatening to beat him up. Instead of letting the situation escalate into violence, Nkese and her friends demanded that the principal call an emergency assembly to discuss the issue and stood with the white student on stage as he made a formal apology.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hold Fast to Dreams"
Copyright © 2014 Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Authors' Note xi
1 Riding Backward: Nkese and Dwight 1
2 With Whom Do You Make Your Permanent Home? Mike and Abby 45
3 Take the Brooklyn Out of You: Nkese and Dwight 69
4 Someone to Step Up and Pave the Way: Ashley 84
5 Away from the Madness: Mike and Abby 105
6 Do You Know What It's Like to Live My Life? Kennetta, Angie, and Rafael 128
7 Finding the Best Fit: Ashley 157
8 Forward Movement: Nkese and Dwight 178
9 Room to Grow: Mike and Abby 194
10 Undocumented American Dream: Aicha and Santiago 209
11 Let's Change Lives: Kennetta, Angie, and Rafael 236
12 The Will to Aspire: Aicha and Santiago 262
Conclusion: College Material 293
A Note to My Students 299