Advanced Placement · educational equity · NYC high school

A Brooklyn School Working to Help Students Share Their Own Voices

(This is a guest post by Natasha Cherry-Perez, Senior Associate Director of Community Engagement at Uncommon Schools and super Mom to an outstanding high school student.)

In middle school, Ruth Kendall remembered the mathematical expression Pi (3.14) all the way out to 400 digits. She loves numbers so much, the Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School senior is planning to major in accounting when she gets to Smith College in the fall.

But the once-shy senior also has a passion for singing.

Kendall, whose parents are from Guyana, started when she was in fourth grade in a choir, but abruptly stopped performing until her sophomore year, when she was in a school performance for Black History Month.

Now she has her own YouTube channel and — in homage to her love of numbers — she even recorded a song reciting the digits of Pi. For the last year, a film crew has been documenting her life, capturing key moments, such as her deliberating over whether to attend Barnard College or Smith College.

Kendall said her teachers at the Bedford-Stuyvesant high school coaxed her out of her shell.

“Being an introvert, it’s easy to be overlooked,” she said. “But at Uncommon Collegiate, it was just the expectation that you had to participate. Even though I wasn’t a big participator, it brought me out of my comfort zone. Singing is a way I can express myself without having to speak.”

Kendall is one of 374 seniors graduating this spring from Uncommon’s four high schools in Brooklyn. Nearly every graduating senior from the four high schools plans to attend a four-year college in the fall. It’s the next step in a path that began for many of these students when their parents enrolled them in Uncommon Schools, a network of tuition-free K-12 public charter schools with 24 locations throughout Brooklyn.

Students in the class of 2021 were in the midst of their junior year when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across New York City. Within a week, however, students at the high school were back in the classroom, albeit a virtual one, continuing where they left off.

Nearly 100% of Uncommon’s NYC seniors participated in at least one AP class and 61% passed one or more AP exams, earning them college credit. Nationally, only about 24% of students pass at least one AP exam and in New York State, that number is 32%.

The graduates have been accepted to some of the most prestigious universities in America — many with full scholarships that help alleviate the concerns about paying for tuition and room and board that can, in some cases, cost more than $60,000 per year. Among the noteworthy acceptances this year are: Brown, Howard, Columbia, Morehouse, Cornell and Spelman universities. 

“We are so proud of our graduating seniors and what they’ve been able to accomplish, especially during a year that presented so many challenges,” said Denarius Frazier, the principal at Uncommon Collegiate. “This is a group of students who exemplify resilience and determination.”

When the pandemic forced cancellation of in-person classes in the spring of 2020, the school provided laptops to students who didn’t have one and ensured they had Wi-Fi access so they could log on to virtual sessions. Frazier said it was imperative to keep the students engaged throughout the pandemic because so many of them were taking multiple Advanced Placement courses in which students take a national test at the end of the year for college credits.

Class valedictorian Hawa Diallo took five AP courses her junior year and is taking five in her senior year. She said she feels it has prepared her for what will be a rigorous course load at Brown University, an Ivy League college in Providence, RI, which she is attending on a full scholarship.

“I talk to Uncommon students who are currently in college and they say how much simpler it is for them compared to high school because they are used to that level of rigor,” Diallo said.

During high school, Diallo excelled in math and sciences. During her junior year, she attended a program run by Google to explore entrepreneurial thinking that was recommended to her by one of her teachers and paid for by Uncommon.

After taking the program, she realized how much she enjoys business and art.

“I finally stepped out of my bounds, made my own business and loved it,” she said. “I loved the process of creating my own business, of being my own boss. Who doesn’t like the idea of being their own boss and leading others?”

Diallo is still in the process of deciding whether to pursue a career in medicine, or in business.

Like the other students, Habibatou Koureichi has taken rigorous AP courses during high school to prepare her for college. She is headed to Duke University on a full scholarship.

She is a first generation student to attend college. Her parents immigrated from Mali, a gold-producing land-locked country in western Africa. Koureichi began attending Uncommon Schools in fifth grade after her parents grew unhappy with the public school she attended.

“I wasn’t receiving the type of education that I needed and my parents thought it would be best for me to go to a charter school because they have more guidance there,” she said.

Koureichi thrived at Uncommon. In addition to taking AP classes, she joined several clubs and organizations outside of school, including an after school program at Pratt Institute called Design Initiative for Community Empowerment (DICE), which introduces students to the challenges of creative thinking and problem-solving through studio classes in design. She also participated in the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, which helps young women overcome structural racism and sexism.

Koureichi developed an interest in epidemiology while taking a virtual summer course about the pandemic last year through Syracuse University. Though she’s not sure what major she will pursue at Duke, she feels confident that she’s prepared to handle the rigors of college.

“I appreciate Uncommon for building my self confidence and self advocacy,” Koureichi said. “I especially appreciate Uncommon for exposing me to the challenges of AP courses. It shows that I can handle a rigorous curriculum and schedule.”

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