Destinee Rivera, a 16-year-old eighth-grader at Middle School 399 in the Bronx, began falling behind at an early age.
She repeated fourth grade in 2002. A frustrated Rivera, who couldn’t handle the academic material, walked out on the state-required standardized test that allows students to advance to the next grade.
As a 12-year-old sixth-grader, Rivera started physical fights with her classmates. She was suspended for more than three months — more than a third of the school year — and had to repeat sixth grade. Then, in 2007, Rivera repeated seventh grade because she failed that standardized test.
Now, Rivera is 16 years old and in eighth grade. She has been lobbed into the category of overage middle school students, which are students who are in grades six through eight and have been held back one or more times. But unlike some overage students — who end up never making it to high school or, once they do, drop out — Rivera has a story with a promising ending. She has gone from a pre-teen rebel to a school advocate as a member of the MS 399 Student Council.
Rivera took the state-required English Language Arts standardized test in January, and she will take the required math test in March. She must receive at least a Level 2 out of 4 on both tests in order to make it to high school, according to New York Department of Education standards, and she’s determined to get there.
“I like school, and it’s helping me learn more,” Rivera said. “Now that I’m making a change, I feel better.”
“Either kids will go forward, or they’ll go back”
In July 2008, a report from nonprofit organization Advocates for Children of New York showed that 1,592 students (26.3 percent of the student population) from nine middle schools in the Bronx were overage. These schools were chosen because they were part of the network of the Academy of Educational Development, a Partnership Support Organization that aims to improve student achievement.
At MS 399, which was included in the study, 8 percent of eighth-graders are overage. Rivera is just one of four 16-year-old eighth graders, said Gisela Bravo, 35, a guidance counselor at the school who said there are 22 eighth graders who are 15 and 35 eight graders who are 14.
Bravo said that some of the 14-year-olds simply have late birthdays, so they are not necessarily behind. But those who have been held back have their own issues.
Many of them got involved with fighting and were suspended for too long, Bravo said. Others simply did not do the required schoolwork. Some overage students, like Rivera, failed the standardized tests in elementary school and were held back at an early age.
“If you don’t have the foundation, you’re set up for failure,” Bravo said. “Some of the kids we have who are overage failed in second and third grade, and now they’ve failed here.”
But failure in the classroom, Bravo added, is often a direct result of trouble at home — or down the street. “The neighborhood is not the best,” Bravo said. “Inside the school, you’re safe. But once it’s 5 o’clock and we leave the school, you walk out and see a lot of the gang violence and some of the drug dealing. The kids see it.”
She added that many parents are overwhelmed with their own stresses — such as losing their jobs or being cut off from health benefits — so they cannot make schoolwork a priority for their children.
“Some of [the parents] are illiterate, and some don’t even speak English,” Bravo said. “They’re really depending on some of these kids.”
She said some of the students will be the first in their families to graduate from middle school. For others, being older than other students in middle school and growing frustrated with difficult schoolwork can be too demanding and could lead to them dropping out. But she said she is confident that Rivera is a student who can make it.
“It could go either way,” Bravo said. “Either the kids will go forward, or they’ll go back. I don’t see an in-between. It’s going to come down to the personal kid, because we can tell Destinee, ‘Pass, pass pass, pass.’ But if Destinee doesn’t want it, or if the environment doesn’t support her, we could lose Destinee to the cracks.”
The Battle at Home
Rivera said she used fighting to deal with emotional problems at home. In 2006, her first year of seventh grade, a close family friend who Rivera called her uncle passed away. But that was only the first of a few hardships. The same year, her mother was pregnant.
“That was my sister,” Rivera said, smiling. “When I used to put my hand on my mom’s belly, she would kick for me.”
Eight months into the pregnancy, during Rivera’s second year of seventh grade, the baby passed away. The loss took an emotional toll on Rivera and her brother Geovanni, 4, her sister Haley, 7, and her brother Thomas, 21.
Rivera’s fighting calmed down following the losses of her sister and friend, but she wasn’t finished just yet. Her last fight was in January 2008, when she fought with another girl in a small grocery store.
Rivera’s mother Aurea, 42, said her daughter’s school usually tried to solve the conflicts without parent involvement, so she wouldn’t hear about all of the fights immediately. But Bravo, who has worked closely with Rivera over her years of fighting, said the school has a mediation program to teach students problem-solving skills. Rivera has participated in the program several times, Bravo said, which is why her mother might not have been notified about every fight.
But Rivera’s mother wishes that her daughter wouldn’t let words get to her.
“You know how kids are,” she said. “They always have what I call the ‘he said, she said.’ The gossip.” Rivera’s aunt passed away from cancer in summer 2008, but she said she didn’t let it get the best of her this time. Rivera’s fighting, she hopes, is over.
Making a Change
Rivera participated in a new program for overage middle school students at Fordham Leadership Academy, which started in fall 2008. For one semester, she and a group of other overage eighth graders from MS 399 attended the high school five mornings a week — receiving high school credit for courses so they could enter high school and not be as far behind.
Rivera said that Angelo Ledda, the principal at MS 399, has inspired her to succeed in school by simply speaking to her daily about her schoolwork and what’s going on in her life.
“I consistently speak with Destinee to remind her of her worth and ability,” Ledda said. “I think Destinee will go as far as she wants. As long as she stays focused and has someone who will not give up on her.”
For next fall, Rivera has applied to two high schools — DreamYard Preparatory School and Herbert H. Lehman High School, both in the Bronx — to pursue her interest in computers and dance. She said she’s anxious to move on.
Rivera’s only complaint about being held back so many times is that the friends she makes each year move forward, leaving her stuck in eighth grade without them.
“It’s hard because the friends I used to have that I was close with, they’re in high school,” she said. “It bothers me but, like, I have to do what I have to do to get there.”