Ashley Rodriguez worried her father would never see her graduate from high school. In eighth grade, she learned he had cancer, and over the next few months, her father’s health quickly deteriorated as he underwent radiation treatments. Ashley put on a brave face at school, but her sleepless nights took a toll. When she entered Newtown High School in Queens five months after his diagnosis, Ashley was motivated to make something positive out of a negative situation. Diplomas Now helped her do just that.
This year, Ashley, 17, will graduate as one of the top students in her class—with both of her parents healthy, and proudly watching. In front of her: Acceptance letters from at least four colleges where she can study psychology, bringing her one step closer to her dream of becoming a police officer.
A few years ago, such a choice was unimaginable. As a Newtown freshman, Ashley struggled in geometry and history, always a tough class for her. Then she learned about Diplomas Now, a partnership of Talent Development Secondary, City Year and Communities In Schools. City Year corps members showed up in Ashley’s classes, tutoring her in both history and math, and over the years, she sought their help in other ways as well.
At Diplomas Now schools, social workers from Communities In Schools help students facing great personal challenges that keep them from focusing in school—or from coming to school. Talent Development Secondary at Johns Hopkins works with schools to help accelerate students’ learning, both to help them catch up and to move into more challenging courses.
Gretchen Maier was a first-year teacher when Ashley came into her English class as a sophomore. Ms. Maier immediately realized Ashley was a special student who loved learning. “The best way for students to learn is to lead, and that’s what Ashley did,” said Ms. Maier. Still, Ms. Maier saw that Ashley needed to be pushed and recommended her for AP English and AP Literature, making sure that she had the support to excel.
Ashley has sought help from Diplomas Now for the past four years. As an underclassman, she got help with her courses, and as a senior, she has gotten valuable assistance with her college applications. Ashley is a member of the Newtown College Club, a Diplomas Now initiative funded by the PepsiCo Foundation. The club helped Ashley with the complicated college application process and trained her to help other students complete their applications and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Ashley is one of 26 seniors who spend a free class period helping other seniors with their applications while also mentoring a group of freshmen.
“Ashley is a great example of a student who has taken advantage of the program during all four years, and it shows,” said Diplomas Now School Transformation Facilitator Daniel Russell, citing her highest average in the senior class and attendance rate that is consistently more than 95 percent.
Diplomas Now has been operating at Newtown for four years, making Ashley’s class of 427 students the first that has had the program for their entire high school careers. Before Diplomas Now came to Newtown, the school was in danger of being shut down and had a “D” rating. Within two years, that rating became a “B,” and the state removed the school from its Accountability Designation Priority School List in 2014.
Before Diplomas Now came to Newtown, the school was in danger of being shut down and had a “D” rating. Within two years, that rating became a “B,” and the state removed the school from its Accountability Designation Priority School List in 2014.
This year, Diplomas Now hosted a college essay writing workshop, facilitated by English teachers, the Talent Development Secondary English language arts instructional facilitator, the school transformation facilitator and City Year corps members. Ashley wrote about the challenge of her father’s illness as she was entering high school and how it shaped her today. Her father’s illness, she said, “made me realize that I can handle any obstacles thrown my way…Having to see my father in pain really changed who I was in a major way. Without that obstacle, I would not be the mature and strong young lady I am today.”
Ashley says she wouldn’t have known where to start without Diplomas Now. “The City Year corps members have already gone through this college process and so it’s easier for us to understand them and learn from them,” she said.
The guidance helped. Colleges are sending her acceptance letters, and her biggest dilemma these days isn’t passing history, but whether she wants to attend college in New York City or outside the city.
Ashley’s favorite teacher believes she will excel at the police academy if she decides to take that route because she is a natural leader. “Ashley isn’t afraid to dream big and take chances,” said Ms. Maier. “But she’s also very realistic. She’s very mature.”
Over the past four years, Diplomas Now has helped Ashley stay on track to graduate. “It’s cool, because when we were younger, a lot of my friends and I would go to City Year corps members for help,” she says. “But now that we’re seniors, we’re also really happy to help out wherever we can too.”