MIAMI — When Moises Arzu was a high school freshman, he got into a fight with his basketball coach and stormed off the court—in the middle of a game. This year, instead of walking off the court, Moises plans to stride purposefully across the stage at Booker T. Washington High School’s graduation ceremony in Miami. The former regular at after-school detention today is the proud recipient of a Florida Bright Futures college scholarship worth $100,000, awarded for outstanding academic performance.
Moises is part of the first class of students who have had Diplomas Now at their high schools for four full years. Moises paints a grim picture of what his life could have been like without the support of Diplomas Now, a partnership of Talent Development Secondary at Johns Hopkins, City Year and Communities In Schools.
“I would be locked up. I would be in prison or dead right now,” said Moises, whose friend from middle school was shot and killed recently. “It made me contemplate, that could have been me. That’s where I would’ve been if it wasn’t for people like Mr. Moore in my life.”
Derrick Moore, the Diplomas Now school transformation facilitator at Booker T. Washington High School, has helped Moises mature over the past four years. As a freshman, Moises missed a lot of school and fought a lot. He hung out with the wrong crowd. He talked back to teachers, had several suspensions and often wound up at Saturday school. “He was a pretty difficult kid to deal with,” said Moore.
Booker T. Washington Principal William Aristide agrees: “As a freshman, Moises was very mouthy. His freshman year was really rough.”
Some of the problems stemmed from a turbulent home life. Working as an able-bodied seaman, Moises’s father was away from home eight months of the year. “Not seeing my father often put me in a position where I didn’t have anyone to speak to and confide in, and it made me act out,” Moises said.
Derrick Moore met with all of Moises’s 9th grade teachers to get him the right support so he could get on track to graduate. “Having adults in the building checking in on a weekly basis is what really brought him to turn his life around,” Moore said.
“Diplomas Now really helped Moises,” says Principal Aristide. “Through the regular early-warning indicator meetings, teachers started looking at him differently and Moises started looking at himself differently. His academics, behavior and attendance have improved. He’s come a long, long way.”
With teachers looking out for him, such as Mr. Jennings who checked in with him at least once a week, Moises was motivated to succeed in school and in life. “My teachers put me in a positive mood and encouraged me and told me how I was doing great,” Moises said. “It made me feel good and positive about myself, and I wanted to keep improving.”
Today, Moises is involved in the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, which matches at-risk youth with adult role models. Moises also participates in Overtown Cookbook, the school’s culinary program that teaches students how to cook healthy meals but also ensures that they follow a healthy lifestyle.
For someone who never thought he would finish high school, Moises today is an articulate, wise, determined and focused student with big goals—attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and also becoming an engineer and a lawyer. “Now he tells people he wants to be a politician—and eventually president of the United States,” chuckles Principal Aristide.
“I don’t forget I have people watching me and expecting me to do things,” Moises says. “My little cousin and my friends’ younger brothers definitely look up to me, and I very much feel like I’m a role model influencing other kids and letting them know I was in that position before.”
Like Moises, Booker T. Washington has been transformed over the past four years that Diplomas Now has been there. Fights have dropped dramatically, and the school has had a 90 percent decrease in suspensions and behavior incidents. More kids are coming to school regularly: about 90 percent of students attend daily. Four years ago, the principal says, Booker T. was Florida’s lowest “F” school on the state report card; last year, due to a state technicality, Booker T. earned a “C,” and actually was 10 points shy of an A, he notes. Four years ago, little more than half of the students graduated; now, 80 percent do. Booker T. has achieved an 88 percent learning gain in reading for ninth and tenth graders, and an 89 percent learning gain in Algebra 1 and Geometry. “You feel more spirit in the school,” said Moore. “Students are more excited about learning, and teachers have a higher morale.”
“We are very pleased with the Diplomas Now program in our school,” said Principal Aristide. “The City Year corps members have made a tremendous impact with their positive affirmation working in the classroom with our students. Communities In Schools brings so many resources to our kids. The coaching from Talent Development at Johns Hopkins has helped our teachers. Diplomas Now has made a tremendous improvement here.”