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New York’s education officials announced an uptick in the 2015 high school graduation rate. For the first time, the city’s public school students passed the 70 percent mark, The New York Times reports.

But there was a significant racial and ethnic gap. Asian students were at the top of the list, graduating on time at an 85 percent rate; White students reached the 82 percent mark.

African-American and Latino students lagged behind, clustered together in the 65 percent range.

The city’s YMCA is making strides towards helping to close the gap.

In 2009, the organization launched the Y-Scholars (referred to as Rowe Scholars for high schoolers), a comprehensive program that targets students from low-income families, shepherding them through the education pipeline into college.

The program reports impressive figures: 95 percent of its high school students went on to college in 2014. And in the 2011 to 2012 school year, all middle school students were promoted, and 93 percent of high school seniors graduated on time.

Participation in Y-Scholars is free. It currently serves more than 1,800 students: 700 high school and 1,100 middle schoolers.

NewsOne visited the West Side YMCA in Manhattan to speak with the program’s administrators and meet some of the students to discover the organization’s winning formula.

Many of the participants are like 16-year-old Latrell Scott. He came to Y-Scholars two years ago, facing significant odds against graduating on time and going on to college.

“Academically, I wasn’t where I should have been,” he was embarrassed to admit. “I was below average, a D-plus student.”

Latrell knew that he was capable of earning higher grades, but couldn’t find a way forward.

He picked up his head and announced: “Now, I’m a B-minus student—still not where I should be, but I still have some time to become an A-plus student.”

The now ambitious pupil, who talked about which colleges he’s applying to, said he was “an over-all slacker.” But his Y-Scholar adviser taught him how to plan and organize his schoolwork while balancing his social life. He’s also blossomed in an environment where there’s lots of discussion and planning for college and careers.

Latrell made an amazing turnaround in just two short years. Jason Wolfe, the program’s director, said ideally, Y-Scholars tries to get students into the program as early as possible—not waiting until the eleventh or twelfth grade.

“Sixth grade is a great time to get them into the pipeline,” he said. “When they come into the program, we help them find their way through middle school and high school. Along the way, we talk about college, and help them to realize that it’s attainable.”

Patience Yeboah, a program manager at the Greenpoint, Brooklyn YMCA, said the counselors, in partnership with the schools, evaluate transcripts and design an individualized academic plan to get them on track.

At each step of the way, the counselors utilize a number of checklists to ensure that each student is on course for standardized tests and college entrance exams, explained Lennox Hannon, a Y-Scholars grant writer. He added that the program helps the students take costly courses, such as the Princeton Review, that upper-income families easily afford.

But Y-Scholars goes beyond academics. “We incorporate social and professional skills development,” Yeboah noted, adding “some students come to us with high academic levels, but need the social and leadership component.”

Students like Jeison Gonell, 17, who are high academic performers, sometimes lack those skills. Jeison said as a ninth-grader he would panic at the thought of speaking in a group setting, let alone becoming a group leader.

“A Y-representative came to me and said we could help you break out of your shell,” he recalled.

His counselor did the unimaginable—placed Jeison in a group where the students discussed things happening in their lives. “I couldn’t do it at first, but my counselor told me, ‘you could do this. I’ll be there in the room, just look at me.’”

Jeison trusted him, and his words “started flowing” at the group meeting. By the next week, he was able to look at all the other group members while sharing his thoughts.


YMCA Y-Scholar Students

Latrell Scott, Taren Nila and Jeison Gonell

He’s now a self-confident peer leader, whose life was also transformed by the YMCA’s fitness and nutrition program. Jeison said he weighed 225 pounds when he entered the program four years ago. He shed more than 50 pounds and is passionate about helping younger kids who struggle with similar issues.

The Y-Scholars’ social component also reaches out to disconnected students who need direction. That was the case with 18-year-old Taren Nila, who joined the program three years ago. She learned how to develop relationships and began to participate in activities that involve interacting with community leaders and elected officials.

These three Y-Scholars are focused on graduating and taking the next step. Taren said she’ll be the first person in her family to go to college. She wants to pursue a career in the medical field.

Latrell wants to study business, but he also has an interest in criminology and forensics. And Jeison has his sight set on attending Long Island University, where he plans to earn a degree as a professional athletic trainer.


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