Makeda from Panama

As a principal, I usually operate with generosity. That doesn’t mean my mind isn’t stingy.

A student can enter the school system at any point in the year, September to June. As a Bronx public high school for newcomer immigrants, we take kids in at any time, no matter when they arrive. About half of our students come from an NYC middle school, and the other half arrive throughout the year, days after their planes landed at JFK. We’ll welcome a student whenever they arrive.

Ideally. 

On June 1st, I got an email from the Bronx office of enrollment: a student, Makeda,* had just arrived from Panama and was being placed in the 10th grade. I forwarded the email to my school’s New Admit team and wrote, “We have a new student.”

That is what I did. 

Here is what I thought: June 1? There’s 7 days of school left!!! What are we supposed to do with 7 days? Why didn’t enrollment just have her start the following year? Now we have to make up 173 days in 7 days? Seriously? 

In September and October, dozens of newcomers get sent to the school and we welcome each one. As the year goes by and it gets later and later, I get a different feeling when I open those enrollment emails– fear. Scarcity– it’s too late, there’s no time, they “missed out,” it will be too hard to catch up. I forget that we’ve done this before. I forget, for example, that one of our recent salutatorians was a May arrival, in the 11th grade no less. 

And here’s the other thing: New York City enrollment has declined dramatically since the pandemic. In early 2020, NYC public schools had 1.1 million students. Now, it’s less than 770,000. On the other hand, my school is still pretty close to its pre-pandemic population. That’s the thing: immigration keeps happening, students keep arriving, and we’re lucky for it. 

The next day as I walked into school, I saw a petite girl with chestnut skin and dark braids piled in a bun, posing for a photo on the front steps of the school. Makeda. She and her aunt introduced themselves to me, and Makeda shook my hand.

She went back to posing for the camera as her aunt ran around from every angle to get the best shot: “She’s so excited to start school!”  Makeda shifted her stiff new pink backpack to one shoulder and put her hand on her hip, smiling and ready to pounce into whatever was next. 

She was an hour early. 

And instantly I couldn’t imagine the school without her. 

*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.

Photo by Jen Leonard, Creative Commons License.

6 thoughts on “Makeda from Panama

  1. Especially these days. Acts of kindness
    And going beyond ourselves is so important. Thank you for this beautiful story!

    Like

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