RI Spotlight: Nowell Academy

On a Friday afternoon, at the end of the school day, Gioconda Ruiz and Krissia Barraza head out the back door, ready to start their weekend. Before heading home, though, they have a stop to make. The two walk 50 feet into an adjacent building and down the hall – where Gioconda’s six month-old daughter is taking a nap and Krissia’s nine month-old son is getting one last diaper change.

Nowell babiesThe young women are two of the 80 high school students who attend the Nowell Leadership Academy just off Manton Avenue in Providence. Another 80 go to Nowell’s Central Falls near the Pawtucket line. Nowell is a public charter school, founded by the YWCA of Rhode Island in 2013, with a primary mission of helping pregnant and parenting students to graduate from high school. And others who may have washed out at another school.

Nowell science“A lot of our students have been, on average, to two or three other high schools in the state of Rhode Island; so Nowell is very unique in that we really try to hold onto to these kids,” says Rosemary Miner, a science teacher at the Central Falls campus. A graduate of the Brown University Medical School who became a flight surgeon in the Army, Rosemary was looking to get back into the work force after spending 22 years raising three children of her own. She said Nowell appealed to her because she gets to teach – and affect two generations at the same time. “Nowell is a challenge, Nowell is unique, but in many ways Nowell is like any place trying to give young people the very best education and the best opportunities to go forward.”

Johanny Toribio knows. She was having a child at age 19 just as Nowell was opening four years ago. “It’s complicated and it’s hard when you’re a parent at a young age and you’re on your own.”

Nowell SlaigerThe school has four teachers at each site – in English, History, Math and Science. The curriculum is flexible, allowing students to work, if they need to, while going to school. It runs year-round and on Saturdays. And the staff works to arrange childcare and transportation – two major obstacles for many of the young parents.

“We have tried lots of different things. We have tried to remain really flexible so that we are meeting the students where they need us to,” said Rebecca Filomena-Nason, Nowell’s dean of students. A teenage mom herself growing up in Pawtucket, she eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in school counseling.

And it’s not just teen parents. Some students have had problems at other high schools, or may have dropped out when they became a parent and were too old to go back. Nowell enrolls students 15 to 20 years old: 80% of the student body is female, about 50% pregnant or parenting. There is a lottery for those on the waiting list.

Nowell classroomWe found that many of the students never before dreamed of going to college, but have been encouraged by the faculty not to stop at a high school diploma. And some we spoke with are hoping to go on to CCRI when they graduate from Nowell.

“I feel like a lot of people come here not wanting to go to college and leave actually wanting to go to college,” said Alicia Burt. “Because that was me. I didn’t think I’d ever want to go to college.”

Rosemary Miner says she is amazed seeing how much the students have to juggle on a daily basis. “Having to worry about getting to class but even before that, getting your child up, getting your child to daycare, feeding your child: I think it’s a huge challenge for these young kids. But it’s also grounding in that they know what they’re working for.”

Miner continued, “They’re not only working for themselves, they’re working to give their child a future, a brighter future, the brightest future that they can, and everyone has great obstacles to overcome. But I show up in the morning and they show up in the morning, and we know we share this goal of getting this done, of learning this material, of getting these kids through graduation, of realizing their goals and dreams – and that common goal really propels us through the day, come what may.”

If you want to see the video version of this story, go to www.RhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know of a person or organization you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to Jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.

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