Applying Themselves

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On a Tuesday evening in early March, Martha de Jesus made the drive from her law firm to New York City Housing Authority’s Ravenswood Community Center in Queens for the first of four high school access sessions with the Feerick Center’s Legal, Economic, and Educational Advancement Project. Before receiving her undergraduate degree from Fordham University and her JD from Brooklyn Law School in 2013, de

Martha de Jesus

Martha de Jesus

Jesus herself went through New York City’s public high school application process as a middle school student. Given her history with the process, de Jesus was eager to provide the seventh graders at Ravenswood with support as they began learning about admissions and researching schools.

“Education is a powerful way of improving lives,” de Jesus said when asked why she became involved in the LEEAP program. She added that her Washington Heights middle school had not placed a large focus on the high school application process; she and her peers had simply received their application forms in November of eighth grade and had then been asked to submit the forms a few days later. Fortunately for de Jesus, her impressive standardized test scores had caught the attention of DREAM – The Specialized High Schools Institute. DREAM-SHSI (formerly known as the Math and Science Institute) is a free extracurricular program that selects cohorts of sixth graders and prepares them for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. New York City is home to nine prestigious specialized high schools, eight of which admit students based on their SHSAT scores.

“My parents are immigrants and knew nothing about the high school application process,” de Jesus explained. “During the orientation, the two-year program promised to provide necessary classes to give me the best performance on the SHSAT. My parents were dissatisfied with my middle school and jumped on board immediately.”

De Jesus estimates that about five other sixth graders from her middle school signed up for the program; however, by the fall of eighth grade, she was the only student from her school still participating in the program. De Jesus is grateful for the support of her parents, who made her involvement a priority and never allowed her to miss a session. Her guidance counselor, on the other hand, seemed less enthusiastic about her registering for the SHSAT.

“I had to go to his office several times before he enrolled me in the test,” de Jesus recalls. “If it hadn’t been for the program, I wouldn’t have been as adamant about it.”

Students at the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Center LEEAP education site

Students at the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Center LEEAP education site

De Jesus ended up earning a high score on the SHSAT and being the first student in her middle school to be admitted to Stuyvesant, a specialized high school located downtown. De Jesus had also applied to non-specialized public high schools with her peers. “Even though I was applying to go to Stuyvesant, I didn’t consider any other school outside my district,” she said. “So just this idea of expanding my views of where I could go to school was challenging. I didn’t understand the impact of the decision and didn’t see any reason not to follow my friends.”

With her knowledge of both the specialized and non-specialized high school application processes, de Jesus committed to working with the middle school students at Ravenswood. During one session, de Jesus had the opportunity to work with a seventh grader named Sarah and her older sister, Stella.* Stella explained that she had graduated from high school and had navigated the application process without support. The sisters’ parents were immigrants and had not been made aware of resources related to high school applications, so Stella had simply gone to the local high school that her peers attended. Understanding the impact that a more positive high school environment would have had on her life, Stella was eager to learn about potential high schools for her younger sister and help her take advantage of the process.

The Feerick Center is grateful for all of the LEEAP Education Component partners, host organizations, and invaluable volunteers that make this work possible. Thanks to the commitment of community members like Martha de Jesus and host organizations like Ravenswood Community Center, LEEAP continues to move forward with its educational equity programming. LEEAP looks forward to connecting students like Sarah with volunteers like de Jesus and watching them progress through the high school match process—hopefully with better matches and in higher-performing high schools than would have been likely without the program.

*Names changed to protect confidentiality.
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