To Honor Her Incarcerated Son, a Principal Revisits Painful Memories

Blank Slate: The birth of a high school

Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño returned to her hometown to start a high school in the hopes of preventing teenagers from following her son’s path to federal prison. Photo: Julienne Schaer

NEW YORK — To return to Brooklyn to open a high school, Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño had to make peace with her past.

She remembers the New York City borough as the place where relatives abused her as a young girl, where she lived with her alcoholic mother in a shelter, where she would have done anything to escape. When she finally did get out as a teenager, she vowed never to return.

By age 18, she was pregnant with her second baby when she arrived upstate for college. She went on to marry, earn two degrees, and launch a career as an English teacher and school administrator — only to watch her first-born son sucked up by the streets in Albany. He dropped out of high school in his freshman year and at 21, he was shot. He survived, only to be arrested on gun possession and drug charges. He’s 26 now, serving a seven-year prison sentence.

A few years ago, Jarvis-Cedeño scaled back her career to care for her husband ailing with lung cancer. But when an opportunity came her way to help kids in her old community, she began to reconsider that vow she had made a quarter-century ago. At first she thought she couldn’t bear to revisit so much heartache in Brooklyn. Yet as she read the horrific crime statistics for the area, she saw the chance to prevent teenagers in her hometown from following her son’s path.

So at 43, she is the founding principal of a charter high school that opened this fall in Brownsville, an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood adjacent to where she grew up in East New York. Of all the educators in all the cities trying to get school right for students at risk, she brings the rare vantage point of someone who has learned not only from professional mistakes but tragic personal ones as well.

And she’s opening herself to be vulnerable again. As the Obama administration calls on schools to stop obsessing over standardized tests, Brooklyn Ascend High is rolling out a liberal arts curriculum that promotes critical thinking over exam prep. Jarvis-Cedeño believes that could have made the difference for her son Josef, along with other key attributes of the school’s design: an unconventional discipline and character-building system, stellar teachers and a beautiful building where every student is well-known.

Half Puerto Rican and half Cuban, she offers the 66 black and Latino ninth-graders in her first class the lesson that you can’t run away from your problems, but you can shape a different destiny.

“The brown boys like my son, they need a different future than the one he had,” said Jarvis-Cedeño, who has wavy hair and glasses and is quick to offer a smile or a hug. Her demeanor is more subdued than the ebullient teachers on her staff who have not experienced the same sort of life hardships, but as she explained to students at orientation, “I’m fired up on the inside.”

Her students — 33 boys and 33 girls — are the same age Josef was when she saw his path to destruction become irreversible. She wishes she hadn’t delayed in pulling him out of public school when he started stubbornly clashing with teachers who branded him a failure. Her younger son, Elijah, attended parochial school starting in first grade, and while she says he gave her plenty of headaches, too, today he is enrolled in a master’s program in public health.

Josef never learned to think for himself, she said, so it was all too easy for him to be lured into a gang.

Related: Do the arts go hand in hand with Common Core?

Ascend, the first high school in a small network of charters, public schools run privately, has a different mission than many peer institutions. High-scoring urban charters often focus on memorization for state tests, practice strict discipline and sometimes discreetly counsel out the low-performers. Numerous themed high schools in New York City and cities nationally prepare students for specific career paths in fields where there will likely be postsecondary jobs.

“The brown boys like my son, they need a different future than the one he had,” says Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño, who wants each of her 66 students to be recognized and known in the school. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Ascend is designed to give teenagers the chance to do anything.

“Had Joe understood the value and power and liberation that comes from having that type of education …” Jarvis-Cedeño said, her voice trailing off imagining what could have been. “It’s just profoundly different what the trajectory looks like for a brown kid.”

To better prepare students for survival at college and in life, Ascend requires them to take responsibility for their actions in school rather than rushing to suspend. They all attend a daily advisory session to build relationships with faculty and diffuse problems before they escalate, plus a thrice-weekly “civic reflections” seminar to grow critical thinking and emotional fortitude.

Jarvis-Cedeño is one of the civic reflections teachers. For her opening day lesson, she had students analyze an article about a man on a plane that crashed into the Potomac River who continually passed lifelines to other passengers until he drowned. This was to introduce the concept of seva, or selfless service, which the faculty chose as a value to guide the school. Students and families are selecting four more words to live by.

During a student orientation to Ascend’s disciplinary system, an approach used internationally and proven to reduce misbehavior, she asked for “a few brave souls” to share what they’ve done to harm others at previous schools. “We’re not going to hold that against you,” she said. “It’s in the past.”

A boy in the front row with an upturned nose and big black backpack told of getting in a fight and telling off an administrator. A second boy said he was suspended after speaking negatively about a teacher.

“Do you think that’s fair, how the adults handled you?” she asked.

“No,” the second boy replied. “I missed out on school.”

She nodded all too knowingly. When Josef was in seventh grade, he was assigned to a class of students with disciplinary problems at the public junior high. Then, finally, she enrolled him in parochial school, but he was quickly expelled after clashing with a nun. She tried boarding school, but he was kicked out after cursing at a teacher. At that point, even though she continued desperately to seek help elsewhere, “it was over,” she said. “The story was written already…. The experience with failure, it never left.”

When Jarvis-Cedeño was young, she dreaded attending the public high school in East New York, notorious at the time for its violence. She was able to use her father’s address on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to enroll in a safer school there. Her father insisted that she apply herself to get into college no matter how hard life was, even after she became a teen mom.

Ascend students, whose parents clamored to get them a spot in the school’s admissions lottery, will undoubtedly have advantages over their peers in struggling neighborhood institutions. Occupying the sixth floor of a beautifully restored historic theater that now houses three schools in the Ascend charter network, its physical space rivals that of an elite private academy. The network’s leaders believe looks matter in giving students the message that they are valued.

Beyond that, Jarvis-Cedeño spent most of her budget hiring accomplished, experienced teachers, in line with research suggesting that high-quality teachers are perhaps the most important ingredient in closing the achievement gap. Four of the five teachers on her staff came together from another school with the vision of creating well-rounded citizens who serve their communities.

Will that be enough to give students the kind of life she dreamed of when she was growing up in Brooklyn?

Related: How some high schools are closing the income gap among graduates

Few high schools with demographics like Ascend’s consistently produce students who achieve college diplomas — college admissions, yes, but then all too often, social and financial barriers prove insurmountable and they drop out.

Even with its innovative structure, Ascend faces plenty of challenges. Students, half of whom came from an Ascend middle school, are at various academic levels, but most are behind — further than Jarvis-Cedeño and her staff anticipated, and teachers say they have had to slow the pace of their lessons way down. What’s more, adjusting to the suspension-alternative model, teachers are spending class time on reflective circles when disciplinary problems (relatively minor so far) occur. Some students are coping with the same types of trauma their principal did as a girl, but she can’t afford to hire a counselor this year.

Still, Jarvis-Cedeño preferred to start a school with a small class and budget than to admit more students and have more money. (Public school funding is based on enrollment, so Ascend’s budget will grow as it adds a new ninth-grade class each year.) Over the summer, every family had a personal meeting with her or a second administrator she brought on to help oversee instruction and student services and troubleshoot wherever needed.

Her office goes unused; instead, she parks herself and a laptop at a student desk in the hall outside her school’s four classrooms so she can keep tabs on everything going on. An aversion to suspension doesn’t mean students can get away with more. On the contrary, Ascend’s small size means teachers can quickly spot misbehavior, with Jarvis-Cedeño providing backup from her central vantage point.

To keep tabs on everything going on at her new school, Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño sits at a student desk in the hallway instead of using her office. Photo: Julienne Schaer

These choices partly stem from her experience starting an all-girls charter school in Albany with both ninth and 10th grades in 2009. Bad habits among the older students were too deeply entrenched, she said, and she didn’t sufficiently sweat the small stuff, like procedures to get everyone to class in an orderly fashion. Answering to a board that did not provide necessary support, she was never able to establish the culture or performance she wanted, and attrition was high. She left after four years, though the school remains open.

Related: Once sold as the solution, small high schools are now on the back burner

In 2013, Jarvis-Cedeño moved back to the Bronx when her husband became ill. She took a less demanding position in mid-level administration at a Bronx charter school, but she longed to make a bigger impact for youth. Then a colleague she respected left to design Ascend’s high school. Impressed by Jarvis-Cedeño’s work ethic, humility and ability to build trust easily, she urged her to come along.

Making her decision, Jarvis-Cedeño was moved by a TED talk by a defense attorney for death-row inmates about how to prevent his clients from ending up where they do: with a nurturing environment from the womb through high school.

For a troubled child, high school can be the end of the line. Yet for her own son, she prays the future will still change course.

Josef Jarvis has been held in a maximum-security federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, that permits 300 minutes a month on the phone and email only through an encrypted system.

At left, Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño’s two sons as boys: Josef Jarvis, standing, is now incarcerated while Elijah Cedeño is in a master’s program. At right, Jarvis at the maximum-security federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where he was permitted to go outside and wear civilian clothes for a family visit.

“I’m surrounded by people who are never going home to their families,” he wrote in an email interview last month. “This system is designed to break you! It’s up to you to stay strong and make the changes.”

He views success or failure in school as a similarly personal decision, saying he chose his own path and while his mother should encourage her students to persevere, they will make their own decision. “All you can do is pray that they make the best one,” he wrote. “I believe in God and that he has a plan for everyone.… There’s no getting around it!”

Online prison records show his release date scheduled for April 28, 2018, but according to his mother, he has received notice that he will be eligible to get out early, tentatively next September. And this weekend, he was transferred to a less secure facility in preparation for the transition.

While opportunities for ex-offenders are extremely limited in American society and recidivism is rampant, Jarvis-Cedeño is hopeful based on her son’s frequent reflective emails that he is ready for a new chapter. Guided by faith and having learned a lot from his mistakes, he says, he wants to find work in real estate, mentor underprivileged children and have kids of his own.

“Every mother wants to believe her child has changed,” Jarvis-Cedeño said.

As she can attest, the past is always with you, but it’s never too late to go home and start again.

Coming tomorrow: For a new father, the responsibilities of parenting and teaching collide

Coming Tuesday: A mother turns to a new high school to conquer teenage apathy