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At the James Baldwin School in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, Javier Mata wears whatever he wants, leaves the campus for lunch and never has homework. It’s a far cry from where he was two years ago: a competitive, college-prep high school called Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering.
At Columbia Secondary, which I attend, students wear uniforms and address their teachers as “professor.” A swipe-in machine tracks attendance and punctuality. For Mata, the hours of homework simply did not feel relevant to his future plans.
The school’s rigid environment prompted Mata’s switch to James Baldwin, one of 51 transfer high schools in New York City.
“I went there on a whim,” he said. “I just heard about how it’s more lax than the school I was at previously, so that gave me the incentive to go over here because I can do less work for … more rewards.”
Transfer schools are specifically designed for students who are behind on credits. Currently, transfer schools serve about 13,000 students across New York City’s five boroughs. Roughly 200 of these students attend Baldwin.
The legacy of James Baldwin, the writer and social justice leader, is very much alive at the school. Its curriculum — which includes courses on race, class and social justice — is carefully designed to be relevant to its students, who are almost all black or Hispanic and who mostly come from low-income backgrounds.
The teachers are experienced and especially attuned to the diverse needs of each student, which creates a supportive environment that makes the teachers seem more like friends than authority figures. In Mata’s own words, “You can confide in the adults here, and people do.”
As Mata prepares to graduate this June, he has found that the adults at Baldwin are very supportive of his postsecondary plans, which, as of now, do not include attending college. Had he stayed at Columbia Secondary, he said he doesn’t think the staff would have been supportive of that decision: “They glorify going to college too much.”
To hear more of Mata’s story, make sure you check out episode 2 of the Miseducation podcast, and stay tuned for the upcoming episodes in Season 3, where my fellow interns will continue to profile James Baldwin students, whose stories have a lot to teach us about New York City’s public school system.
This story about New York City’s transfer high schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Ashaa Khan is a student at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering.