Two years ago, Ashante Davis walked into Schenectady High School as a transfer student who was hopelessly behind.
He’d skipped most of his freshman and sophomore years in Manhattan, and had taken just one Regents exam, in algebra. He had only five credits, one-third of the amount needed to become a junior. Students are supposed to earn 7 credits a year by passing their classes.
In Manhattan, his principal told him he wasn’t going to graduate on time. He was no longer a member of the class of 2012. So he might be forgiven if his walk across the stage to get his diploma Friday is a little more triumphant than the average student’s march.
He fit four years of high school into two, cramming classes into the school day and staying three hours late for night school, all so he could walk across that stage on time.
It wasn’t easy. While he was determined to graduate on time, that determination slipped in the face of the double classes, night school, and hours of homework he had to do.
As his motivation dipped, his teachers sent each other regular emails. Davis isn’t turning in his work, they’d write. He’s coming to class late. What should we do this time? So, they admitted shamelessly, they conspired against him.
They offered him extensive use of the high school’s music studio, where Davis delighted in creating music and starring in videos. But if he fell behind on his aggressive schedule, they wouldn’t let him into the studio.
“One of his teachers would email me and say, ‘Look, he’s not even allowed to come near the studio if he doesn’t come to school,’ ” said music studio paraprofessional Prince Sprauve. “We all worked in cahoots with each other. We would try to devise plans and tactics to keep him involved.”
The first time Sprauve told Davis he couldn’t enter the studio, Davis nearly quit school.
“That was my only reason to come,” he said. “If I couldn’t have the studio, why even come to school?”
The extreme reaction warned his teachers to use the carrot-and-stick approach cautiously.
When Davis seemed overwhelmed and too stressed to perform well, teachers told Sprauve to give him extra studio time.
“Sometimes we gave him the studio even though he didn’t deserve it, as a motivation,” Sprauve said. “He hung in there when it looked, sometimes, like he wasn’t going to make it.”
Davis came to Schenectady in August 2010, when his mother moved here just before school started. He was enrolled in the 10-P program, which is intended for students who failed ninth grade. The promise to them: If they work hard, taking double classes and no electives, they can earn enough credits to jump to their junior year.
Davis listened closely to this offer, then he asked for more: Could he do night classes? Could he take Regents exams early, in January?
He took double English and double Global Studies in the morning. He spent his afternoons learning geometry on his own through the district’s computerized teaching program. He made sure to finish quickly enough each day that he could also squeeze in health and an art class.
Then he stayed after school for three hours, studying biology. He watched as other students left class early so they could take the late bus home instead of walking. He stayed.
“A lot of kids lost points because they wanted to take the late bus,” he said. “I was determined. I was here with a purpose and a goal.”
In January, he passed the biology Regents and was freed from night school for the rest of the year. In June, he passed all of his classes — and the requisite Regents exams in English and Global Studies — and jumped to his senior year.
He was the only student in the program to move from 10-P to 12th grade.
Davis said he was “full of confidence” last year, after he passed the biology Regents in January and no longer had to attend night school. He spent every afternoon at the studio instead.
And he sailed through his classes because he’d seen much of the material already.
“I did two years of it already,” he said. “I didn’t pass just because I wasn’t there. I knew the material.”
He also didn’t have any friends here to distract him, he said.
Upping the ante
But the work this year was much harder. It was all new, which meant he had to study more. He had also made many friends, so studying all evening was no longer the only option on his social calendar. In Manhattan, he’d skipped school to hang out with his friends at parties, on the beach, at the Bronx Zoo. Now he was facing the same temptation here, with new friends and new places to hang out.
“Honestly, I hated this year,” Davis said. “I had been full of confidence. It kind of backfired. I was really struggling. I didn’t want to be in school no more.”
He snuck into the studio, trying to skip class. But teachers would report him tardy, and his guidance counselor knew just where to find him.
“There were definitely times he’d get burnt out and tired, and we’d go looking for him and make him leave the studio,” guidance counselor Andrea Tote said.
He didn’t have much time for studio breaks. To graduate on time, he filled his day schedule: English 11, U.S. history, participation in government, economics, math, Earth science, forensics, and three years’ worth of gym.
In the school’s rotating eight-day system, students normally take three days of physical education. To meet the state’s requirements, he had to be in gym seven of every eight days.
“It was really weird,” he said. “I felt like I was cutting class. I’d see other kids who weren’t supposed to be in that section, they’d say, ‘Shhh, I’m cutting. Are you cutting?’ And I’d explain the whole story and say, ‘No, I can’t cut this class. I need this credit.’ ”
After school, for three hours, he took English 12.
“Night school all year,” he moaned. “I like English, don’t get me wrong, but when you make me read — it was after school on a Monday!”
But some classes were still easy. He didn’t do his math homework for one quarter, but finished it all in one day after his math teacher offered to grade it anyway.
“Math is so easy for me. That’s why. I’d just get lazy,” Davis said.
One last test
If he passed all the classes, he’d have just enough credits to graduate. But he also needed to pass one last Regents: U.S. history.
The Regents was scheduled for last Thursday. On Tuesday, the grade came back.
He got a 71.
Not a grade to be proud of, perhaps, but it was a passing grade. He was officially a high school graduate.
He still can’t quite believe it.
“Honestly, I feel numbed with happiness,” he said.
He has been accepted at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, where he plans to attend the music program. Finally, he said, he’ll be able to make his own academic choices.
“Now I feel like I don’t say, ‘I’m doing what I have to do.’ I’m doing this for myself,” he said.
Soon, he’ll also go back to New York City to visit his childhood friends. He’s looking forward to showing them the movie he and other Schenectady students spent the last two years creating at the music studio.
It started as a music video on the horrors that an urban student must get through, then it became a movie, with students handling the music, the acting and the filming. Davis has the lead role.
“When I bring that movie back to my friends, they’re going to say, ‘You left for two years to do this? When other people leave for two years to do time?’ ” he said.
“I didn’t get swept off the street for no reason. I have something to show for it.”