The Write Way to Graduation

Idea Leader: Chantal Hylton

Location: New York, NY

Partner Organization: Youth Communication New York Center, Inc.

Project Summary: Twenty-five students including Chantal Hylton, 18, produced a special issue of their magazine, New Youth Connections titled “Will You Graduate?” Over 70,000 copies were distributed and included youth-written articles on choosing a school, attendance rates, GED and obstacles to graduation.

The Write Way to Graduation: A Special Edition of NYC Magazine

When they read that New York City’s graduation rate was a dismal 59 percent, Chantal Hylton and her fellow teen writers at New Youth Connections magazine weren’t surprised. They were well acquainted with the many problems urban youth face in high school: a complex education system that’s hard to navigate; large, impersonal schools where teachers are stretched too thin; peer pressure to cut class; and the common feeling that you’re just not suited for the school environment. But Chantal and the other writers wanted to encourage their peers not to give up and become “just another statistic” they said.

With the help of AT&T America’s Promise My Idea Grant, they went to work on a special edition of New Youth Connections magazine, revealing their own struggles in school and describing how they overcame their various obstacles.

A total of 25 students participated in the project: writing, proofreading, participating in a roundtable discussion, creating the illustrations, and creating a video. Mitzi Sanchez, a New Youth Connections writer, photographer and videographer, explained how each story went from just an idea to a published piece.

“The editing process is a long process,” she said. “We start by brainstorming. We gather different ideas all together, and after that you choose from two to three of your best ideas and you start what we call pre-writing.”

She explained that writers then work on what’s called a “story plan” with their adult editors, and spend a long time revising each draft. During the process, writers work with the art department, which is also staffed by teens.

“You go with the illustrator and create an image that represents your story, what it’s all about,” Mitzi said.

That’s exactly the process that Marco Salazar went through as he wrote his story, titled “Big Fish Seeks Larger Pond.”  He explained what inspired him to write, and what he learned from the process.

“Until recently I regretted going to my high school,” said Marco. “This past summer I went to a program called STEM and I was around students who went to the high schools I wanted to go to—they went to specialized high schools—and they told me about the resources they had that I didn’t have: For my school in lab we don’t have equipment. We just read lab reports and copy the answers. [But the other schools have great equipment.] My perspective changed when I received acceptance letters from all the colleges I applied to, including my dream school, MIT. This experience has taught me that life can be unfair. Sometimes you have to work harder than others to succeed, but that doesn’t make it impossible.”

The New York Times printed the issue for free. We distributed 74,000 copies through our regular distribution channels: 622 teachers and other staff at 480 schools, after school programs, and community based youth groups. We also emailed the stories to the 4,000 educators and youth who subscribe to our online newsletter. We also distributed a 22-page Leader’s Guide with discussion ideas, writing exercises, and other activities to help teachers and other staff use the stories to reinforce the issue’s basic message: get your diploma.

The idea leader, writers, artists, and adult staff who worked in this issue hope that the stories inspire teens not to give up on school. In each story, writers discovered that their education was truly up to them and they learned that, despite a sometimes unfair system or feeling alienated in school, dropping out is not the solution. Summaries of stories are below:

  • Party’s Over, by Cristhians Gonzalez: Cristhians got hooked on hooky parties and fell behind in school. Eventually, she dropped out and got a job, only to realize she wanted much more for herself. She decided to enter a GED program and commit herself to studying every day.
  • Don’t Get Pushed Out, by NYC staff: Some New York City schools find ways to force low-performing students out, a widespread and illegal practice to improve test scores and graduation rates by any means possible. This story explains what students can do to fight back.
  • Showing Up is Half the Battle, by Shahlo Sharopova: About 40% of New York City teens missed at least a month of school in 2008-2009. Shahlo explores why the absence rate is so high and offers her own suggestions.
  • GED: Tougher Than You Think, by Cristhians Gonzalez: Two experts explain what the GED is, why prepping for it is so important, and how it's different than a high school diploma.
  • Why I Loved Special Ed, by Irving Torres: Irving is initially upset when he's placed in special ed, but eventually finds that a great teacher matters more than a label. He stays with the same teacher for three years, and concludes most struggling students would benefit from “looping,” the practice of keeping students and teacher together for multiple years.
  • From Slacker to Star Student, by DeAnna Lyles: DeAnna is put off by teachers who seem rude and uncaring, so she starts skipping school. It becomes a habit and she realizes, two years in, that she might not graduate. Scared, she transfers to a small alternative school that demands more of her—but also feels much more caring.
  • Escape From Private School, by Crystal Yeung: After Crystal moves from a Catholic grade school to a public junior high, she’s fearful of the other students and defensive. Once she realizes that all the bad stuff she’s heard about public school isn’t true, her fear is slowly replaced by affection.
  • Obstacles to Graduation (a roundtable discussion): A group of teens discuss their various obstacles to high school graduation: pregnancy, difficult family circumstances, chronic absenteeism, and feeling lost in school. They debate why New York City students are doing so poorly, and explain how they got back on track.
  • Big Fish Seeks Larger Pond, by Marco Salazar: Marco feels cheated out of a better education. He was less prepared than other students for the specialized high school admissions test because he didn't know about it, and ends up in a mediocre school. He makes up for his so-so school by enrolling in summer programs, and ends up getting into MIT.
  • How to Choose a High School, by Anthony Turner: After living upstate for a while, Anthony moves to Brooklyn and realizes he needs to enroll in school just days before school starts. With little guidance, he must quickly choose—and get accepted into—a decent high school. He navigates the complicated system as best he can, but says he wishes he had more time. This ran with two sidebars “Many Ways to Graduate” and “Before You Enroll.”
  • Wild Child, by Catherine Cosmo: Halfway through her senior year, Catherine gets expelled. She has fun partying and taking ecstasy with her dropout boyfriend—until a scary experience forces her to evaluate her life. She ends up transferring to a school with fewer rules and re-dedicates herself to her family and her education.

Youth Communication is a publisher of teen-written books and magazines, including New Youth Connections, which goes out to hundreds of New York City high schools, libraries, and community-based organizations. Launched in 1980, Youth Communication has been reaching thousands of young people each year with peer-written stories that inspire them to read, write, and acquire the information they need to make thoughtful choices about their lives.