Principals' Promise Academy

A special promise for a bright future

For seniors Isaac Barajas and Joendi Espinal, the idea of graduating in June was becoming less and less of a reality. They both had fallen behind in their schoolwork and felt so overwhelmed they did not know how they would get themselves out of it.

Now their future looks brighter, and they are looking forward to celebrating the milestone with classmates — and hoping to foster their love of cars by studying auto mechanics at the Universal Technical Institute. Their turnaround can be attributed to their personal commitment and participation in the new Principals’ Promise Academy at Port Chester High School.

“I was told it would be helpful and will help me pass,” Isaac said about enrolling in the Academy. “I said, ‘Yes, I want to do that.’”

Both Isaac and Joendi, who have been friends since the third grade, work after school – Isaac at Cava in Rye Brook and Joendi at Stop and Shop in Glenbrook, Connecticut. They often get home late and finding time to do homework was just about impossible.

The Academy provides three teacher assistants and one special education teacher who work with students. Participants are expected to be at school at 9 a.m. and do their schoolwork until noon. They have time in the afternoon to get their other required courses done, such as physical education, before leaving for the day. Students are welcome to arrive earlier and stay longer to work on their assignments. Eventually, the Academy would like to build in afternoon internship or community service opportunities for students.

“We know we are able to pass,” Isaac said of his success so far. “We were in a hole. There was no point in coming to school. Now it’s like what is the next step?” Isaac said about post-graduate plans.

Joendi said the experience has been rewarding and has shown him that he can do the work. He has even been able to complete some of his assignments ahead of time. “It’s really good. We are getting stuff done,” he said of his schoolwork.

Principal Luke Sotherden said he had been thinking about starting a program like this for some time. He wanted to focus on students who have, for whatever reason, become disconnected from school both academically and socially. Thanks in part to funding the district received through the American Rescue Act and the new school addition that opened up classroom space, he had what he needed to begin the Academy this school year.

In the fall, Mr. Sotherden worked with guidance counselors and teachers to help identify students they felt would benefit: any student who may be within reach of graduating but may be just short. The counselors made a list of students. Students and parents interviewed with their guidance counselor, school principal and school social worker to learn what the Academy was and to gauge their interest.

Fifteen students opted to take advantage of the program. Following an orientation in mid-January, the Academy was up and running by the end of that month. Both students and parents were required to sign a contract to participate, assuring their commitment to the work.

“This is really about making a promise,” Mr. Sotherden said. “We’re going to help you get caught up and help with post-secondary planning, help rebuild you as an adult. Students and parents have to promise they will show up and take advantage of this.”

In addition to the academic work students do, the Academy will also work with them to learn organizational and time management skills and how to best communicate with teachers.“There has to be that connection to the classroom,” Mr. Sotherden said.

“We’ve had 100% attendance two weeks in,” the principal continued with pride. “I ask the kids how it feels, and they say, ‘It feels great, this is exactly what I needed,’” Mr. Sotherden said.

Keeping that feeling of success going through the end of the year now seems possible and is something the principal feels will continue to grow as the students make more progress.

“It’s why I got into this,” Mr. Sotherden said of becoming an educator. “I wanted to help kids who feel disconnected, give them a good high school experience. It feels good to help a kid.”