Tough Kids Learn to Meet Tough Standards
Wildcat Academy makes high school graduates of students no one could reach
By the time Annette Lacoot was halfway through high school, she'd had her share of difficulties. She had landed in remedial classes after an accident sidelined her for several months. Soon thereafter, she became pregnant.Skip to next paragraph
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Facing motherhood and an uncertain future, she decided to change course. So she enrolled at Wildcat Academy in downtown Manhattan.
That was two years ago. Now, the high school graduate is looking forward to college in the fall. She thinks she might like to become a school principal or a community-center director.
Annette got a fresh start at Wildcat, an alternative high school that targets at-risk teens. Founded in 1992, the academy has a simple objective: motivate students that no one else has reached. Applicants enroll on a first-come, first-served basis for a program of rigorous academic study, strict discipline, and workplace internships. And with the overwhelming majority of Wildcat graduates going on to college or the armed services, the school is setting a standard for how a small and innovative enterprise can make a big difference in troubled young lives.
"Wildcat truly is a model," says Robert Berne, vice president for academic development at New York University. " People clearly buy into the mission and it works."
For evidence, visitors need look no farther than the halls of Wildcat, which are covered with everything from award-winning student art to term papers to certificates of achievement. It's a noteworthy accomplishment in a school where one-third of students are on probation or parole, and a third of the young women have children. The majority have parents on welfare, and most are from single-parent families.
Yet Wildcat, which operates under contract with the New York Board of Education, has a growing record of success: Out of 56 students who have graduated in the past two years, all are now in college or the armed forces. Very few students drop out. All this is being done on about $5,800 per student per year - some $1,000 less per student than other city public schools spend.
Classes runs year-round, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday. Students follow a regular high school curriculum and work at internships every other week - if they've finished their homework, of which they have about 12 hours each week. In addition to regular subjects, Wildcat emphasizes art, music, and writing, to help students learn to express themselves in healthy ways.
Wildcat succeeds because of its "fundamental belief that these students can learn and achieve," says Amalia Betanzos, president of Wildcat Service Corp., which runs Wildcat Academy along with other social-services programs. She adds that the school has "very high standards of discipline and comportment."
Keeping close tabs
It also has teachers - hired directly by Wildcat - that keep close tabs on the needs of the school's 125 students. The staff is small: just six teachers and three counselors. But "If you have a personal problem, [counselors and teachers] take it and make it their personal problem," says Charles Nieves, a recent graduate.
Counselor Sofnia Amalbert, for example, often calls absent students at home on her time, or goes out to look for them. "I've had kids who graduated because of that extra mile," she says.