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Making the case for school funding

Formerly homeless student goes to bat for Charlestown High

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Making the case for school funding
Luis Aponte (Photo: Photo courtesy Luis Aponte)

As a homeless teenager, Luis Aponte often found himself sleeping in parks and playgrounds between stints on couches and floors of friends and relatives.

Between the daily struggles of meals, keeping clean clothes and a minimum wage job at Subway on Huntington Avenue, Aponte often had trouble finishing his homework and making it to school.

“I was living out of a bag with the little bit of clothes that I had,” he said. “I missed a lot of school.”

Aponte’s life was spiraling out of control, and his teachers at Charlestown High recognized it. Now in his first year at Northeastern University, Aponte credits their decision to enroll him in the school’s Diploma Plus alternative program with turning his life around.

“Diploma Plus made me a stronger student,” he said. “It taught me study habits. It taught me critical thinking.”

Two weeks ago, during a School Committee meeting, Aponte joined other students, teachers and alumni of Diploma Plus to make a case for continued funding for the program. Like many schools under the budget axe this year, Charlestown High is facing a $600,000 budget shortfall caused by the gap between rising costs and level funding.

And as is the case at other high schools, it’s the special programs — like advanced placement courses, arts, SAT prep at Boston Community Leadership Academy and Diploma Plus at Charlestown High — that are least likely to survive the budget crunch.

Speaking to School Superintendent Tommy Chang and members of the School Committee, Aponte used his personal story to underscore the effectiveness of Diploma Plus.

“I’m a living, breathing example of what this program does,” he testified.

Aponte told the Banner programs like Diploma Plus should be expanded, not cut.

“You have schools where you’re producing socially-aware students and they’re taking funding away from them,” Aponte says. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The concerns Aponte and other students, parents and teachers raised in the School Committee meeting will likely dominate discussions of the city’s budget in the coming months. In his State of the City address, Mayor Martin Walsh announced expanded investment in kindergarten seats, but this year’s school department budget includes more than $30 million in cuts, most of which will be absorbed by high schools.

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said she supports the mayor’s calls for strengthening kindergarten to give children a strong start, but she also wants continued investments in high schools.

“It is just as important that our children have a strong finish,” she said. “I’m really concerned about the projected draconian cuts to our high schools. When you take away teachers and librarians, you’re diminishing the quality of education in a school. It destabilizes the learning community.”

While the costs of salaries and transportation have long been increasing, the cuts haven’t hit high schools hard in recent years. Three years ago, the school department agreed to expand Diploma Plus, approving plans to increase its enrollment from 75 students to 230 as part of an Innovation Schools proposal.

“We never received the funds to move forward,” said one Charlestown High teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Diploma Plus was founded in 2009 by Charlestown High teachers to help students who are not on track to graduate. In the program, students learn in smaller classes and receive one-on-one help from teachers who monitor their progress with weekly meetings.

“They meet with each other and ask each other how the student is doing,” Aponte said.

The teachers working with Aponte quickly saw his brilliance – and his challenges.

“They say that the work was easy for me,” Aponte said. “It wasn’t that the work was hard. My life was hard.”

Aponte enjoyed the coursework and the individualized attention he says taught him study skills. In biweekly community circles, Aponte and other students held discussions about their personal challenges.

“We would talk about our highs in our lows in that week,” he said. “We would talk about racism, police brutality, gender fluidity. The beautiful thing about Diploma Plus is that it helps students learn about themselves.”

Although Aponte eventually moved back in with his mother, a difficult home life still made his school work difficult. Recognizing his proficiency in his subjects, his teachers in the Diploma Plus program recommended he take the GED exam, rather than finish his coursework. Aponte passed the test on his first try, then returned to the program to volunteer as a teaching assistant in history.

After high school, Aponte worked with the city’s Summer Jobs program painting murals and eventually enrolled in Northeastern University’s Foundation Year program, which allows local students to earn a year’s worth of credits. As long as he earns a grade point average of 3.4 or above, Aponte will be able to attend on a full scholarship. Aponte says he currently has a 3.8.

“It’s a competitive environment,” he said. “But among black students, there’s a sense of community. At the moment, I’m leaning toward a double major in African American Studies and Public Health.”

Aponte says none of his current success would be possible had he not enrolled in Diploma Plus three years ago.

“If I didn’t go through Diploma Plus, I’d probably be a drug dealer, a gang member or dead,” he said. “I didn’t have hope.”