- Faith & Family
Booker T. Washington Senior High has seen its share of challenges and change. With several principals in recent years and less than stellar graduation rates and FCAT scores, some doubted if things would ever turn around. Less than half of their seniors [46.9 percent] graduated in the 2007-2007 school year. Since then, graduation rates have climbed steadily. And with new Principal William Aristide, 46, closing in on 1 ½ years at the helm, there’s a new attitude at BTW – one that says “all students can achieve.”
As a testament to Aristide’s leadership, the school’s graduation rate now stands at 80.2 percent.
“The County’s rate is around 72 percent and the State average is in the range of 68 percent, so we’re very pleased with how we have continued to improve,” he said. “But this not a solo effort – we have a great team. The key is leadership at all levels and our pushing a college culture on our students. It’s all about holding teachers and students accountable.”
Rising rates mean more going to college
Aristide says that his counseling staff has been instrumental in helping students make sure they have the credit hours needed to graduate on time. And while some have had to make up classes, he notes that with improved grade point averages, more of his students see college as a real option in their lives.
“Life after high school has become more positive for our kids,” he said. “We have mentors that meet with them – many of whom are teachers. And our parents have bought into this new way of thinking. You have to hold kids accountable, certainly. But parents have a job to do as well. My first goal has been to raise expectation levels across the board. We may be an urban school but that’s no excuse for subpar performance.”
Last year BTW earned a “C” for the school’s FCAT grade and was only four points away from a “B.” But they were penalized a full grade, resulting in a “D.”
“The lowest 25 percent of our students did not move a full grade in reading,” he said. “Most of those students were special education and ELL kids. But we didn’t let that get us down. Many of our students are in advanced placement courses, they’re in dual enrollment classes and we have college readiness courses that are required for everyone. We have also been able to get more students to take the SAT and ACT exams and they’ve done well.”
BTW has a student body of 950. Blacks make up 54 percent; Hispanics total 44 percent. He says his diverse population brings unique challenges.
“Many of our children are recent immigrants and Spanish is their first language,” he said. “It amazes me that the State expects them to perform like a native English speaking student on the FCAT in two years. Some kids who have been here their entire lives struggle with the test. It’s just not realistic. But we do the best we can.”
One senior shines with prestigious scholarship
When Aristide talks about one of his graduating seniors, David Green, he becomes noticeably excited. Green is one of 69 students in Florida and among 1,000 in the U.S. to receive a Gates Millennium Scholarship. It will pay his tuition in full and is good through graduation at a college of his choice.
“David is the essence of what Booker T. Washington is all about,” Aristide said. “He comes from an impoverished background and like most of our kids he’s seen negative behavior, drug abuse and violence on a regular basis. But he has never lost his focus. He’s been able to do the right thing. He’s a humble young man that will go far and takes care of business every day.”
Green says having mentors has made the difference.
“I have mentors at the Miami Science Museum at the Upward Bound program and four teachers that helped me get the scholarship: Anthony Jennings, Robert Morris, Edward Robinson and Jack Hart. Amy Robinson helped me at the Museum. But Jack Hart has been my major influence. He’s been there for me personally, emotionally and is my inspiration. He’s a father figure in my life. They have all encouraged me to have fun in school. I work like crazy and had to learn how to sometimes take my head out of the books and enjoy the world.”
Green will attend the University of Florida and will major in engineering and business.
Jennings notes that David remains committed to helping other students improve.
“He’s been in my afterschool program for four years and has become a real leader,” he said. “That’s what sets him apart.”
Other local Gates scholarship winners include: Akinsomisoye Olajumoke, Northwestern; Roxanne Eugene, Turner Tech; and Courtney Johnson, Carol City.
By D. Kevin McNeir