Twenty-six ex-cons were honored last week for having earned GEDs in the last year by the Fortune Society, a nonprofit group in Long Island City where they attended GED prep classes.
They were the lone graduates among an estimated 200 people who attended these courses, according to John Gordon, a math teacher and administrator at the program, putting them among the top 13 percent of their peers.
At the ceremony, held before a room full of smiling family members, many of the GED honorees were black and Latino men. This is notable given that the graduation took place on the very day Mayor Bloomberg announced he would be devoting $127 million — $30 million of which would come from his own pocket — to a new city plan meant to target this very demographic of the city.
The report that accompanied Bloomberg’s announcement crystallized the challenges many of these 26 graduates faced to obtain their high school diplomas.
If he was just a few years younger, Alexis, a 29-year-old Puerto Rican, would have found himself a target of the initiative’s many goals. The Bronx native, who accepted his GED certificate at the Fortune Society with a grateful nod to Gordon, his math teacher, has spent much of the last decade in and out of prison, rehab and a life as a drug dealer.
In many ways, he fits the dire statistical picture of black and Latino young men painted by Bloomberg’s report.
Like nearly half of his peers, according to the report, he grew up without a father, who left his family when he was 2 years old.
And like 20 percent of Latino men ages 16 to 24 — and a whopping 38 percent of black men in the same age group — he didn’t have a job, or at least, a lawful one.
“I got caught up selling drugs,” Alexis said. His last name has been withheld at the request of the Fortune Society, because it feared he might be discriminated against if his full name appeared in this story.
“I had a gun case,” he said, explaining one of his arrests in 2001. “I got locked up and I had probation.” Within a month of getting out, however, he was selling crack again.
Asking why, by the time he turned 28, Alexis hadn’t graduated from high school, had been to prison and found himself addicted to drugs is at the crux of Bloomberg’s initiative, which the Fortune Society and many city policy experts have hailed as a major step forward.
“We’ve been talking about this as something we wish New York City would do for years,” said JoAnne Page, the president of the Fortune Society. She noted that her organization, which had been part of the discussions the mayor’s office conducted during an 18-month research period, would compete for some of the money now on offer through the iniative.
The mayor was correct, she said, in focusing so much attention on black and Latino men, the city’s most at-risk population for a slew of social ills. “If you focus there, you bring everyone else along.”
But while many agreed with the plan’s policies — which include moving probation offices into communities with the greatest number of probationers and banning a question about a prospective employee’s criminal history on initial employment applications — not all were sure it would have the desired impact.
“It’s certainly a drop in the bucket in a way,” said Gordon in reference to the initative’s $127 million price tag. The need in the city, he said, was just too great. He cited how some 100,000 people cycle in and out of Rikers Island every year. When asked why so many former inmates at the Fortune Society who take GED classes don’t go on to get their diplomas, he described how a large percentage of students are not even at a sixth grade level when they first walk into the building.
But Lynn Videka, dean of the Silver School of Social Work at New York University, thinks the plan’s sum is significant, as long as more funding flows in after the initial first three years Bloomberg has committed the money to.
“The best program would also provide some incentive to employers” to hire ex-cons, she added, such as tax breaks. But she praised the plan for addressing the “institutional and structural barriers” in place against black and Latino men.
For Alexis’s part and those of the other GED grads who attended Fortune’s courses, their high school diplomas could be the first steps into new lives. By simply getting high school diplomas, the black and Latino men among them have literally defied the odds.
Now, Alexis hopes to join the fewer than 5 percent of GED grads, by Gordon’s estimate, who actually go on to get a four-year college degree. The day before the Long Island City ceremony, he had been busy at LaGuardia Community College, where he has been accepted into an EMT program on a full scholarship.
“Everything is like new to me,” he said. While he still needs to find a permanent home and the challenge of landing a good job lies ahead, he seemed excited for the future.
When he received his certificate from Fortune, he recalled how hard he had worked to get it. “I didn’t have much time to waste,” he explained.