What It Takes

In the public schools, Joel Vargas has learned, the rules are sometimes nothing more than a starting point in negotiations. Take the rule that you have to spend a full year at a high school before transferring. Joel broke that rule twice in a single month. And it’s a big reason why he’s going to Yale next year.

If Joel had been an ordinary eighth-grader and followed the path set out for him, he would have gone to Evander Childs High School, a 3,000-student Bronx behemoth that Mike Bloomberg has branded one of the city’s “Dirty Dozen” most violent schools, and that quite possibly would have snuffed out his Ivy League ambitions right there. At Evander Childs, cops patrol the hallways; Joel knew, barely looking at the place, that he couldn’t make it there. It was a decision to beat the system that, like many of the other choices that followed it, demonstrated the same sort of entrepreneurial qualities that the mayor says he’s trying to bring into city government—and, in particular, the schools.

Today, Joel is a slim, soft-spoken 17-year-old who lives in a small two-bedroom apartment north of Fordham Road. His mother brought him to New York from the Dominican Republic when he was 5; now they live with his stepfather, an electrician who was forced to retire because of bad knees and supports the family with Social Security checks. Joel’s mother speaks only Spanish, and though she was a great help pushing Joel in elementary and middle school, there was little she could do for him in the eighth grade, when he faced the crucible most public-school kids face: If you don’t know how to play the game, you can very easily end up in a school where teachers are too busy breaking up fistfights to care about any single kid. “I have some friends that attend there, and they say it’s just horrible,” Joel says. “They have metal detectors, so that gives away how they perceive the student body. This is something I wanted to get away from.”

(Joel may not be surprised to hear that the best students at Evander Childs feel somewhat out of step with the place. Most came to New York from somewhere else shortly before the ninth grade—Jamaica, Trinidad, North Carolina. “I come from a country where you don’t get multiple-choice,” says this year’s valedictorian, Narcisa Aho-Glele, who came here from West Africa five years ago. This fall, she’ll be attending McGill in Montreal.)

Joel applied to the magnet high schools and made it into Brooklyn Tech, but commuting two hours to and from the Bronx each day just didn’t seem possible. He had also naïvely applied to Unity High School, a so-called alternative school near Canal Street; he showed up on the first day to discover that Unity was a second-chance school for older kids who had failed. Looking at some of his fellow students, he was a little afraid. “I didn’t know,” Joel says. “All I knew about most of the high schools was that bulletin they give out during eighth grade.”

“If you don’t learn to play the game, you can easily end up in a school where teachers are too busy breaking up fistfights.”

Another student might have stuck it out there, but Joel got out in two weeks. Because of his parents’ language barrier, he took it upon himself to apply to the Beacon School on the Upper West Side, another alternative school, this one with a reputation for helping gifted students. He wrangled a meeting with the principal, explained how he was unhappy at Unity, and was granted a transfer. But within days he realized that the 700-student school was simply too big for him. Though still only a high-school freshman, he understood the value of a place where all the kids and teachers knew each other’s names. Otherwise, he was sure he’d get lost in the shuffle. “I didn’t think I’d get the attention I’d deserve,” he says.

It was the social environment, as much as anything, that bothered him. “It looked disconnected. The people were just in their own little realms.”

Two schools in one month—the system wasn’t designed to allow this kind of choosiness, and Joel was running out of options. Help came this time from his older brother, Johan, who at the time was a junior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science, another alternative high school, run in conjunction with Hostos Community College on the Grand Concourse. Unlike magnet schools, Hostos admits kids of all academic levels; the small size of about 400 students guarantees attention for everyone. Joel had been turned down by Hostos as an eighth-grader, but Johan used his personal connections to get his brother another shot. “Most kids, when they get rejected, get discouraged, and they don’t put any effort into it,” says Johan, who is now a junior at Columbia. “Rejection isn’t automatic—it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get into your school. For me, it was about knowing people who knew me and could put in a good word for me.”

Today, Joel’s transfers would be more difficult. The remade Bloomberg school system is working to break up the big schools like Evander Childs, but it also has erased the alternative-school district, grouping schools like Hostos in with all the other schools. “It was a little easier to move kids around alternative schools,” says Hostos principal Miriam Uzzan. “Principals could have discussions with each other, saying, ‘This isn’t really working out for this kid.’ ” With brand-new high-school-application procedures, even Uzzan still isn’t sure about everyone in her incoming freshman class the fall. “I’m getting calls from students we had numbered in the first 80, and they’re saying they’ve been placed in another school. There are still kinks.” Despite the pressure on desirable high schools from Chancellor Joel Klein to increase space, more than 10,000 students this spring didn’t get into any of their choices (although—this just in from the Could Be Worse Department—that’s down from 35,000 in recent years).

Joel aced his classes at Hostos, taking the math 1 and 2 Regents his first year, and from there he kept hustling. Knowing that college-admissions officers liked to see a long list of extracurriculars, he packed his schedule: basketball, chess club, internships at Lincoln Hospital and the Museum of Television and Radio, volunteering for the Red Cross, tutoring poor Dominican kids after school. Somehow, he also managed to work four late-night shifts a week at McDonald’s. Joel’s case suggests a curious development within the school system: Long before private-sector principles were brought to bear on school management, tenacious students like Joel appropriated those same concepts for themselves, figuring out how to operate like a person trying to get ahead in any career—calling in favors, cutting out of bad situations, being very single-minded about their upward mobility.

Joel made his first visit to New Haven last month, after being accepted. He’s already thinking of staying on for his M.B.A. And so the hustle continues: Now he spends most of his time on scholarship applications, looking for a new job, and generally thinking ahead, the way he’s been doing since eighth grade. “I’m trying to save up money so that next year I won’t have to take out so many loans,” he says. “I don’t want to finish four years of college $50,000 in debt.”

What It Takes