Program helps bridge diversity gap at New York City’s top-tier high schools

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“In my neighborhood you don’t really get motivated to do great things,” Kanae Bunche, an 8th grade student, said.

“She lives in a neighborhood where crime is an everyday story,” Crystal Bunche, Kanae's mother, added.

That's how Kanae Bunche's story begins, but not how she wants it to end; dreaming of one day getting out of the South Bronx.

“When school is oveScreen Shot 2015-03-08 at 4.20.53 PMr I walk to the train station I get on the 5 train to 86th street," Kanae explained. "I get off at 86th street and transfer to the 6 train to 77st and I keep walking to Breakthrough about five blocks.”

Breakthrough New York is how she hopes to change her life.

“Once I got in I was like wow they picked me," Kanae said. "I wanted to show them that I could be intelligent, smart and be persistent.”

The non-profit is a rigorous six-year college access program committed to getting high-risk kids with great potential into four-year colleges.

“We’re looking at kids from communities who don’t have a lot of other opportunities," Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, said. "They are low income kids who are really motivated and who are hungry for opportunityScreen Shot 2015-03-08 at 4.24.22 PM.”

An opportunity every student should have but doesn't. A recent report by the Governor's office shows that more than 50,000 kids attend city schools that got a failing grade, for low graduation rates and test scores. More than 90% of those students are minorities or live in poverty.

“I remember the letter that I got from Breakthrough, me and my mom literally cried," James Lherisson said, nearly crying. "She was telling me, 'James this is one step closer for you to go to college,' I would be the first person to go to college in my family.”

8th grader James Lherisson hopes to get into a top-tier high school.

“The high school process is a unique beast in new York city," Wong explained. "We have to be more rigorous about the high school application process than any other city in the country."

Breakthrough New York aims to place its students into one of five categories; specialized public schools, parochial schools, selective public schools, independent day schools and boarding schools.

“I don’t have any favorites and if I get into any one of them I'd be so happy,” James said.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 4.24.54 PM  Statistics just released by the city's Department of Education found only 5% of the students admitted to specialized public high school were black. Just 7% were Hispanic, despite making up 70% of all public high school students. Those numbers are virtually unchanged from last year.

In a statement to the New York Times Thursday, the city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said “It’s critical that our city’s specialized high schools reflect the diversity of our city.” “We continue to review a variety of ideas to increase diversity at our specialized high schools,” she added, like trying to increase access to the test, and “offering expanded free test prep."

“Last year we had 300 applicants for 68 positions," Wong said. "This year we anticipate having even more, but the good news is we’re opening up another center in the Bronx so we can take 100 students.”

Breakthrough New York is trying to minimize that gap. All of the program's students in the last five years got into top-tier high schools.

“Breakthrough opened my eyes," James said. "I now know where I can go, I now know my opportunities.”

"[This opportunity has been] exactly what the name says, it's a breakthrough," Crystal Bunche said. I want Kanae to be the best that she can be. I want[ed] to give her a fair playing ground."

"[Breakthrough] taught me a lot about me," Kanae said.  "To see how I could further myself and push myself and strive for more than what’s in front of me, it taught me about not giving up.”

Kanae and James are still waiting to hear which schools they've been accepted to, and are both looking forward to the next step in their academic careers.

 

PRODUCED BY: KIM PESTALOZZI