The Bronx Institute: Helping Students to Stay In School

The story of one immigrant working to change the course of education in the Bronx

Professor Martinez and some of the students that have defined his life in the Bronx. (Alisha al Muslim)

By Alisha al-Muslim

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

Originally published in March 2007

For Herminio Martinez, it all goes back to his youth. Helping young people pursue an education is his way of repaying the favor he received when he was a 14-year-old Cuban refugee struggling to learn the English language and enroll in a public New York middle school.

In his broken English, Martinez was unable to explain to school officials that his parents had remained back in Cuba. Yet they insisted that he needed a parent or a legal guardian to enroll.

“I could not believe that I wanted to go to school and they would not allow me to register,” recalls Martinez, who is now a PhD and a Lehman College professor.

Had it not been for one of his neighbors, who volunteered to help him register by pretending to be his mother, Martinez may have not pursued an education.

And today, the thought of that woman’s generosity is what motivates him to run Lehman’s Bronx Institute, a non-profit agency designed to motivate Bronx students to stay in school.

Recalling his own efforts to get an education, Martinez said he angrily kicked the sidewalk outside the school that wouldn’t let him register.

“There was nobody there that could sit down and understand my situation,” said Martinez, explaining that he came to the United States through Operation Peter Pan, a church-sponsored program that gave refuge to children who came from Cuba without their parents.

His own struggle is what makes him a dynamic advocate for Bronx youth.“There are many kids that have special situations like that in New York City,” said Martinez, who is the Institute’s executive director and a professor of middle and high school education at Lehman.

The Bronx Institute was established 20 years ago, primarily to research and record the oral history of people in the Bronx. But when Martinez took it over in 1998, he introduced a new vision: To promote excellence in the education of Bronx students, and the quality of life in the Bronx.

“I really wanted to work with schools,” said Martinez. “I felt that Lehman had a responsibility to the public schools. That is what led to the community-oriented approach of the institute. The mission of CUNY is to take the poor student of New York City and to provide an opportunity for them that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Since 1999, some 2,000 students from eight schools have benefited from the Institute’s federally-funded GEAR UP program, which is designed to prepare students from low-income families for college. And during the next few years, more than 3,400 public school students will benefit from another grant, worth $16.3 million, from the U.S. Department of Education for GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

The Institute will work with the New York City Department of Education to ensure that within six years these students, currently in middle school, will graduate from high school and enter college. Last June, more than 1,000 of those students received Dell laptop computers for home use through the GEAR UP laptop loan program.

“What is exciting about this grant is that we will have the opportunity to work with students beginning in seventh grade and continuing through to their senior year in high school,” said Bronx Institute Deputy Director Naomi Barber. “They will receive the skills and sense of purpose they need to succeed in high school and to be accepted into a wide array of colleges and universities.”

Phe-be Smith, 18, a Gear UP alumni who is now a Lehman College freshman, said the program helped her define her career goal of becoming a journalist.

“At first, I thought: ‘I am only in the sixth grade, what do I care about college?’” said Smith. “But it was really important now that I think about it, the preparation that I learned. A lot of freshmen get [to college] and automatically want to party, where as I know from GEAR UP that no, it’s not about partying. The journey is not over yet, it is just beginning.”

GEAR UP takes its students on tours of many colleges, from CUNY campuses to Ivy League schools. Accelerated courses are offered to students beginning in the ninth grade. High-performing students can attend paid summer residential programs at Yale and Harvard. The program also provides opportunities to travel abroad. In the past, students have gone to China, Costa Rica and England.

Although the Institute does not provide scholarships, it helps students find all forms of financial aid. Many former students have received scholarships to attend college.

Yet some parents feel that they cannot afford to send their children to college because it is too expensive.

“We find that very often the parents are the ones who keep telling their kids ‘I don’t have money. You can’t go, you have to work.’” Martinez said. “We do orientations for parents at night, so that they can understand that there is a lot of money out there. It is possible for their kids to go to college.”

The Institute also provides:

• A science curriculum enhancement program, which gives students opportunities to learn biology and understand the complexities of the human body.

• Opportunities for students to meet prominent young authors and, in collaboration with the New York Public Library, receive free copies of their books.

• Spanish-language books. In the fall of 2005, the Institute’s BETAC (Bilingual English as a Second Language Technical Assistance Center) program purchased Spanish language libraries for 143 schools, which was funded through a grant from the State Education Department’s Office of Bilingual Education.

• A guide to more than 60 small schools in the Bronx, available in English and Spanish, to help parents make the best decision on where to send their children. The guide was funded by the Kellogg Foundation and created through the ENLACE (Engaging Latino Communities for Education) and the Latino Collegiate Society, which prepares Latino students and their parents for higher education.

• Training for students to take entrance exams for the specialized high schools, such as Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science, in order to increase enrollment of Bronx students in those schools.

“One of the things that we found was that the number of Bronx residents going to the specialized high schools had been going down,” said Martinez. “We began this last year to bring them together and prepare them to take the test to get into these schools.”

According to Martinez, SAT preparation is the Institute’s most important program to help students succeed.

“I know that without it, these kids would find it more difficult to go to college, to get scholarships and that is the standard for going higher and higher,” Martinez said.

And that is precisely where Martinez intends to take the Institute. He said his goal is to keep expanding until all Bronx students are participating in the Institute’s programs.

“I like the fact that we can work directly with youngsters and that we can provide things for them that school can’t provide and parents can’t provide,” Martinez said. “And that we can bring in there what they need in a very direct way and see the results.”

And it’s all the result of the goodwill of a woman who, back in the early 1960s, pretended to be his mother.

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