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Yet Another Insightful Winerip Column

New York Times "On Education" Column
July 2, 2003
by Michael Winerip

WHEN Jorge Ballinas was in the eighth grade at Intermediate School in the Bronx, he had to select a high school. His father, Raymundo, a Mexican immigrant who works as a waiter and went only as far as sixth grade, could not advise his son.

"We didn't look into it," Mr. Ballinas said in Spanish. "Jorge was the one who decided. We had faith in him."

Jorge picked Taft High School because it had a business program and was only five stops away on the subway line that passes Yankee Stadium. Then, the summer before ninth grade, he started hearing terrible things about Taft.

"People were telling me about the bad reputation," Jorge said. "Kids were supposedly wild, no control."

The first day, he was scared and became lost looking for the cafeteria.

"I didn't know no one," he said. "I wasn't sure if I'd make friends."

His ninth-grade math teacher, Mario Arboite, taught a new math, where students had to explain how they reached the answer. For a long while, Jorge was not sure whether it would be proper to ask for help.

"It was the whole idea of high school," he said. "You think you're in high school, you should understand how to do it."

When he did finally ask — after two months — he was surprised. "Mr. Arboite was very cordial about it," said Jorge.

Truth was, Mr. Arboite had been noticing Jorge. "Sat in the front row," he recalled. "Very shy, very quiet. Definitely not a wordy person. Very serious and very bright."

At the end of that first year, Mr. Arboite took Jorge to an assistant principal's office. He recounted: "I said: `This is Jorge Ballinas. He can do higher work.' "

Jorge was on his way.

Had Jorge understood where he was going to school, he would have probably gone elsewhere. Taft is on the state list of failing schools. Of the 550 students who started with Jorge in the ninth grade, just 123 graduated last week. The average verbal SAT is 335, math 382. Daily attendance is 86 percent, well below the city average — despite 10 truancy officers assigned to the school.

A failing school if there ever was one.

Or is it the other way around? That large numbers of children who are failing are sent to Taft? In this era of school choice, Taft is what is left after almost everyone else has made their choice. Only 7 percent entering freshmen read at grade level; 3.5 percent are at grade-level math.

"Guidance counselors at other schools say, `If you misbehave, we're sending you to Taft,' " said Maggie Bec, a teacher at the school for 26 years. "We're the last resort."

And Ms. Bec loves it. Over and over at graduation, she was cited as a favorite teacher, to wild whoops. Just 123 graduates? "I consider our staff miracle workers to actually graduate so many," she said.

Jorge does not care how many failing labels outsiders stick on Taft. "I spent four years here," he said. "I should know more than they do."

As the valedictorian of the class of 2003, he had so many people to thank. There was Deborah Hector, his computer literacy teacher, who also teaches "soft skills." "Ms. Hector has a courtesy month," Jorge said. "She applied appropriate behavior. She wanted `please' and `thank you' and proper decorum."

Ms. Hector nodded and said: "Oh, yes. It's not only academic. Ballinas here is very introverted. I've said to him: `I dig into you. You keep yourself too far below the surface.' I say, `Ballinas, we must talk about life.' "

Jorge would not have been valedictorian without his guidance counselor, Bernice Crocker. In his junior year, his grades slipped to 70's and 80's. He was late to school, missing English. Ms. Crocker has seen it before. Sometimes it's drugs, sometimes a family crisis. Jorge was working full-time at the Delizia Pizzeria.

"I'd come home, finish my school work at 1 a.m., and then couldn't wake up in the morning," he said. "Ms. Crocker said, `Jorge, this is not like you.' She said the most important thing for you is education. Whatever money you make now is not as important as education."

So Jorge quit the job.

In the junior year, when he scored 1200 on his SAT, word began to spread. By senior year, the same Jorge who had no college plans in the ninth grade was taking calculus.

"Mr. Osewalt, I consider him very important," said Jorge. Charles Osewalt was his English teacher, and "The Stranger" by Camus made a particular impression on a youngster as reserved and aloof as Jorge.

"The main character didn't care," Jorge said. "But he should've. Otherwise it will come back to haunt you."

The need to care? "Mr. Osewalt invited me and other students to his house to help us apply for scholarships," Jorge said. "He paid for my dinner, let me use his computer. I met his family. He helped with the essay and took me home in his car that night."

Though he did not have the money to visit college campuses, he won a scholarship and picked Pennsylvania State, based on advice from Alessandro Weiss, the guidance head, who grew up in that area and was sure that Jorge would love it. June had been cold and rainy, but Mr. Weiss predicted it would be 100 degrees and humid for graduation, and it was.

The ceremony was quite modest. Because most students take double math and English periods to catch up on studies, Taft barely has a music program. The one music teacher, Peter Schroeder, played "Pomp and Circumstance" on the piano, accompanied by Will Vasquez, a 10th grader, on drums.

The microphone looked like it was last used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but every speaker managed to point out that although they had just finished a long journey, they were beginning another. They sang the senior class song, "Hero," by Mariah Carey, and the Taft Hymn ("Cheer for Blue and Gold Again!"), and at 11:09 a.m., by the powers vested in her, Lisa Luft, the principal, pronounced them graduated.

One minute they were loud and raucous, the next minute out the door. As the summertime quiet settled, it seemed worth remembering that even here, at the supposed bottom of America's far too frequently maligned public education system, there was plenty of opportunity — Camus, calculus and Ms. Hector's courtesy month — for those who seized it.