Disadvantaged students share poetry, and intimate details of their lives

Published by Meridith Kolodner | Daily News Staff Writer | Full article can be read here »

This is the fourth in an occasional series about the first charter high school in East Harlem.
Power Writers - Renaissance Charter high school
In an age of high stakes testing, a school enrolling some of the city’s most disadvantaged students is offering a course that is part therapy and part creative writing.

About a dozen ninth-graders at Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in East Harlem clamor up the steps at 7:30 a.m. every Thursday to share their poetry and some of the most intimate details of their lives.

The poems range from the agony of teenage love to the humiliation of domestic abuse, and they are shared among teenagers for whom hiding weakness is a method of survival.

“When we get here, it’s a way to get through what happened during the week,” said Ikenna Wesby, 14. “If you don’t feel like you have a mother or a father, you can come here and write about it, and we don’t get judged for it.”

One student broke down after she read a poem about her mom’s boyfriend’s abusive behavior. Another, who didn’t speak for the first two months of school, stood and delivered a gut-wrenching love poem.

“One of the most powerful things about this room is that it breaks down shame,” teacher Amy Sultan said.

The laser-like focus on data-driven results has pushed elective options like creative writing out of schools, which are still smarting from nine rounds of budget cuts.

Innovation got a grant for the $30,000 Power Writers program this year and has made it a priority to find funding for it again next year.

“It’s a more humanistic way of looking at students,” said principal Nicholas Tishuk. “The more literate they are, the more likely they are to read and do well in class. The more they are empowered, the more confident they are to tackle things that are difficult… You might hate algebra, but you love Power Writers.”

Some educators might be hesitant to offer such electives to students with Innovations’ academic background. About 40% of the students receive special education services, and the graduation rate for special education students in the city is about 25%.

Power Writer teachers strive to weave lessons about history, writing and literature throughout the class.

Sultan read a poem she wrote that included the line “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

A couple of students commented that they like that line, and the teachers admitted it was “sampled” from another author. They asked if students had heard of Karl Marx. No one had.

“I’ve heard of Carl Lewis,” one young woman offered.

A teacher wrote the Communist Manifesto author’s name on the board, and the students had a research assignment about him for the following week.

Victoria Pleasant, 16, said Power Writers was part of what kept her coming to school. She stayed home for two years after she said fellow students at Norman Thomas High School threatened to throw her onto the subway tracks while they waited for a train.

She came to the first day of school at Innovation in September and then didn’t show for two weeks.

“I was scared. I felt alone,” the East Harlem girl said.

Innovation teachers called her every day and knocked on her door several times until she answered.

She enrolled in Power Writers. Now she rarely misses a day, and she’s one of the stars.

“People build walls,” Victoria said. “When you get here, you can let them down.”