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Three years ago, when I was teaching writing to 10th-graders, I formed a bond with a student named Aiyanna Scott. Every Friday afternoon after the last bell, we would sit down for a recorded conversation about school, life, food — whatever came up.
Our school, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was called Achievement First University Prep High School, part of a network of 37 charter schools across the Northeast. Aiyanna, who had attended Achievement First schools since kindergarten, struggled to get good grades and stay out of trouble. She told me that in middle school, she had a reserved seat in detention.
By the time I got to know her during her sophomore year of high school, Aiyanna had started to doubt her abilities as a student.
“I’m not going to make it,” she told me in one of those Friday conversations toward the end of the year. “I’m really not. I’m going to get left back. I’m going to be retained.”
I told her not to think that way, that she could still pass if she buckled down and did her work. It turned out to be wishful thinking. That next year, Aiyanna had to repeat 10th grade, but I wasn’t around for it. I left teaching at the end of the 2016-17 school year to launch The Bell, a nonprofit that amplifies students’ voices and empowers them to fight for educational equity.
So, you can imagine my surprise — and hers — when, after two years apart, I ran into her in the hallway of The James Baldwin School, where my student interns and I had been reporting Season 3 of The Bell’s podcast, Miseducation. It turns out that after another rough year at Achievement First, she had transferred to Baldwin in the fall of 2018.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I miss Mr. McGraw,” she told me that day while we caught up in a spare classroom. “But I was actually wondering why you were here at the same time.”
Baldwin is one of New York City’s 51 transfer high schools, which are designed specifically to serve students like Aiyanna who have fallen behind. The Miseducation team has been profiling its students to better understand what causes them to transfer, how Baldwin attempts to get them back on track and whether it all works.
I was reluctant to include Aiyanna’s story in the season because I knew it would have to include my own story as her teacher, as well as critiques of a school where many former colleagues and friends still work. Ultimately, I decided the story needed telling.
Tune in to the latest episode of Miseducation to hear about Aiyanna’s transition from a school where they “pick up the fork and feed you” to a school with more freedom than she’d ever imagined. Along this serendipitous journey, you’ll hear about special education, “professionalism” and contrasting approaches to school discipline.
This story about high school transitions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Taylor McGraw is the executive director of The Bell, which produces the Miseducation podcast in partnership with The Hechinger Report. This season tells the stories of students attending transfer high schools in New York City.