13 Mar The Teenagers of Rikers IslandMarch 13, 2017
Tim Lisante is the superintendent of the school district that includes Rikers Island, the main prison complex in New York City.
By: Monica Disare
Source: The Atlantic
In Tim Lisante’s first year as an assistant principal at a school for youth on the prison complex Rikers Island 30 years ago, he met a student with four strikes against her. She had a learning disability, substance abuse problem, no permanent home in the city—and she was pregnant.
Some might have seen a lost cause. Lisante saw a student in crisis.
Three decades later, Lisante is the superintendent of New York City’s District 79, which consists of over 14,000 students who have fallen behind in high school; been involved in the criminal-justice system; or who have special needs such as drug treatment, job training, or child care.
Years ago, the district used to include transfer schools, which serve over-age and under-credited students, and other small high schools. Now it is a network of programs for students learning outside of traditional school settings.
Lisante said he is especially focused on the formerly incarcerated youth he first saw when he started as assistant principal—because they often need the most help.
Against that backdrop, Lisante is working to restore hope. He said the worst part of his job is seeing teenagers who seem to have given up, but the best part is watching those same young adults turn a corner. We met Lisante at a conference for “transition specialists,” who help students regain their footing after they leave detention centers. It’s one way he’s trying to make sure these students get a second chance, he said.
“When I first went to Rikers, I had a whole different picture,” Lisante said. But once he was there, he remembers thinking, “This is it? These are the most egregious kids in New York City? I just realized they were a lot like my own sons.”
We spoke to Lisante about his work in District 79, how he plans to help New York City’s court-involved youth, and whether New York state’s graduation requirements are too tough. The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Monica Disare: What got you interested in this type of work?
Tim Lisante: I worked in a vocational high school in the South Bronx and I became assistant principal of special ed there. One day, I saw this ad and all it said was “assistant principal, Rikers.” … So I went to Rikers, and the funny thing is, I never went to Rikers before I took the job. I interviewed in Manhattan and I remember driving over the bridge and seeing all these jails and that razor wire and saying maybe I should turn around. But that was 30 years ago.
When I got to Rikers, I really found that was my niche because the students [have] so many needs, multiple needs. … It’s really exciting work and it’s a population that really gets overlooked, that has no real advocates.
Disare: You said you grew up about five miles away.
Lisante: I went to Holy Cross, a Catholic school in Flushing, [Queens]. Literally, it’s less than five miles from Rikers, but my experience was so great in high school. That’s one of the reasons I became a teacher. I love school.
So then when I go to Rikers … and I see the experience that 16- and 17-year-olds have, it’s so different from what it should be. The worst experience of my career is seeing kids who give up hope at 16 and 17. What we’re trying to do is renew that hope.
There’s nothing that we like better—that I like better—than these graduations in June. One of the best things about the graduations is looking at the parents. These parents have been through a lot. They come, like, two hours before the ceremony. They’re so happy. They don’t want to leave after it’s over. Everybody’s taking pictures and everything because their children have come a long way. Those graduations … make this work really worthwhile.
Disare: How do you tackle the hopelessness?
Lisante: One of the things that we are really proud of in District 79 is we have a very good counselor-to-student ratio. We have social workers, guidance counselors, that are really, really dedicated and we give them training. I’m also concerned about them because they’re hearing horrible stories every single day, you know, in small groups and in individual counseling.
A lot of issues we can tackle in a group during the advisory. A lot of them have to be tackled individually because there are so many needs and it’s so hard to get teenagers to open up. For example, I mentioned homelessness. Kids don’t admit that they’re homeless.
Disare: But you’re often still able to reach them?
Lisante: Yeah, it’s the greatest thing … The students all get a photo ID when they come in and then we always contrast that photo ID with their graduation picture and, you know, it’s night and day. Like I said before, it’s a harrowing experience to be in any [of these] situations, and you remember what that student was like when they first got in. To see them persist, overcome, pass these Regents [statewide standardized tests], and get a high-school diploma, or a high-school equivalency—that’s a great thing for that student, that student’s family, and their community.
Disare: You mentioned high-school equivalency diplomas. When and how do you help students pursue that option?
Lisante: Pathway to Graduation is basically the biggest high-school equivalency program for students under 21 [in the city] … We prepare students to get the skills they need to pass the exam. We help them with college admissions and pay for the [City University of New York] waiver and college counseling. The neat thing about Pathways to Graduation is it’s more than just a test-prep class.
We have about probably 75 of these sites through New York City and they’re in traditional high schools, like [DeWitt] Clinton [in the Bronx], Edward R. Murrow High School [in Brooklyn]. We’re also in college campuses … [But] a lot of students don’t want that kind of setting anymore. We offer paid internships within hospitals, a wide range of job-shadowing they can do, a variety of internship experiences, all kinds of jobs.
Disare: You have a lot to manage. What is your priority right now?
Lisante: We look at the students that are the most at risk, the furthest away from a diploma, and that’s why we are putting so much into the transition services at Rikers. To me, they’re the furthest away from the high-school diploma. It’s a really, really difficult thing. The same thing for the kids in drug treatment. Supporting those students … so they stick and they stay and they don’t drop out—that’s our biggest priority. That’s our biggest mission: to help those students that are fading to get back on track and to stay on track.
Disare: What’s the hardest part of helping court-involved youth?
Lisante: The hardest thing about these programs is there’s what we call a rolling register: kids come in and out every day. Schools are not built like that. Schools are built on school years and semesters. Again, when I taught [at Rikers], I’d give a test on a Friday, I’d have three new kids come in on Thursday and three leave on Thursday. So that’s why [it’s easier] to work with students that are sentenced because … they know they’re going to be there every day. But most of our students are awaiting the outcome of a case. It makes it very difficult.