By Reporter
NBC News
updated 5/20/2005 12:24:28 PM ET 2005-05-20T16:24:28

“They expected the worst, so I gave them the worst,” said 24-year-old Yovani Whyte of her relationship with teachers during her tenure at Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn.

Though she was accepted into New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology while a junior in high school, Whyte says she never put forth effort in school because she did not feel that teachers expected anything from her and the lack of support from her mother exacerbated the fragility of her self-esteem. 

Ignoring her college acceptance letter after her father refused to help pay for her education, Whyte, who says she had never heard of financial aid, spent the remainder of her formative years in and out of trouble with the juvenile justice system, culminating with a stint on Rikers Island.

Now she is part of a program that seeks to warn others against following her footsteps.

“I joined a gang because it just seemed like they would ask me how things were going and if there was an issue, a problem, they would fix it,” she said.

“It felt like the gang members cared more and I didn’t feel that anywhere else, so why not become one?”

With no opportunities, there is only one choice …
“The first time you put a gun in someone’s mouth, you are very scared.  I admit that.  But six months later … it gets a lot easier,” said 18-year-old Patrick, a college student and former inmate on Rikers Island who asked that his real name not be used.

“For me, image is important. On the streets, there is something appealing about an image.”

A former gun-toting stick-up kid, Patrick said growing up in the foster system and attending an unsympathetic school made it easy for him to rob and steal, gaining an image of success and fulfillment on the streets.

Patrick, who describes his childhood as “bizarre and lonely,” never knew his mother, who died of AIDS when he was 7, and had limited interaction with his three siblings, whom he was separated from once they were all shuffled to different places through New York’s foster care system.

“If I grow up in the foster system and then I get to school and I see there are robberies going on in front of my face, then what am I supposed to think?”

Now after stints on Rikers Island, Yovani and Patrick, both college students, have returned to their communities to serve as role models in high schools. 

Both partly blamed the educational system for their problems, saying it reinforced the negativity of street life. 

Failures in education leave fewer options for success
In fact, some experts argue the school system may be a pipeline to the prison system instead of serving up alternative opportunities to street life.

“I think the educational system is a moral disgrace, and 100 years from now we will look back and wonder why there was not more outrage about education in America,” said Cornel West, a renowned academic and professor of philosophy at Princeton University. 

“Without opportunities and options young brothers and sisters are forced to go to the underground economy. And this fuels incarceration rates.”

West, one of the nation's most outspoken scholars on education in America, blames school shortcomings — along with broken family units, lack of community resources and life options —  as reasons many poor youth turn to the streets as a source of income and livelihood. 

The Center for Education Statistics reported last year that 350,000 to 500,000 teenagers drop out of high school every year, with students from families living below the poverty level six times more likely to drop out than their counterparts.    

For both Yovani and Patrick, the choice to join gangs and enmesh themselves in street culture pushed them both into the nation’s correctional system.

The same bad choices bring 3,000 under-18s to New York’s Rikers Island each year, said Beth Navon, executive director of Friends of the Island Academy (FOIA), an organization dedicated to providing a variety of social services to people recently released from Rikers Island.

Because 90 percent of the inmates on Rikers Island come from the same New York neighborhoods plagued by poor schooling, high unemployment and fragmented family systems, Navon said the most effective way to reach youth and show them other options is to reach them before they get to Rikers Island. 

At Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx, mentors from FOIA provide support for students in the school's suspension program with hopes that they can make a difference before bad choices are made.

"Aside from being kids who have raised themselves and who have been exposed to lots of trauma, a lot of these kids have not had anyone to look in their eyes so they can see themselves reflected back with love,"  Navon said. 

New beginnings and new alternatives ...
At Adlai Stevenson's New Beginnings School, students with disciplinary records serve out suspensions under the tutelage of the FOIA’s Mark Washington. 

“A lot of these kids are hopeless, and we just try to change their perspective,” said Washington, himself a former drug dealer and Rikers Island inmate.  "They know the world is against them. We try to show them they have choices."

Located in a trailer behind the high school, Washington said one cannot help but notice how similar the school itself is to the notorious New York City prison. “It’s a shame that the school in the community looks just like the prison.”

There is only one entrance into the school, where students pass through metal detectors and their bags are searched, and they are required to carry ID cards at all times. 

The walls surrounding the school are high, and there are bars on the windows and at  least two armed police officers stationed at the end of every corridor. 

“The teachers here are scared because they don’t know where these kids are coming from,” said Shane Allen, an FOIA employee at Adlai Stevenson.

Allen said the communication barrier between the teachers and students is an important explanation for many students’ disdain for the schooling system.

“A lot of the students say they wish their teachers were like us," he said, referring to the mentors' background in the local community. "Because we relate to them and we are not afraid of them, they really know we care about them.”

The program encourages students to take control of their lives and behavior and to prepare for the future.

Washington, who says he never had anyone to talk to about the choices he was making, credits the program with instilling a sense of hope and also showing the teens that in spite of their situations, they do have other options besides street life. As a newly married father, he uses his own life as an example.

Mentors are living sermons for disadvantaged youth
The message of concern and understanding is a message that Washington, as well as Yovani Whyte and Patrick, all speak about though their participation in intervention programs. 

All three have been to Rikers Island, and all three say what led them there was feelings that no one understood them or cared about what was happening to them.

Now as mentors, each has dedicated his or herr time to rebuilding the communities and becoming “the person” for the youth in their community who they wish had been there for them as they grew up.

For the mentors, each peppers conversation with stories of success about students whose grades improved because they knew someone valued them.

But most important, Whyte said, student success is driven by respect, because the kids know she is not threatened by them.

"They know I care about them, and that is why they listen to me," Yovani said. "I am not here for a check, I am here because I want to be here to show them a different way.  And they relate to that."

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