Judged. Labeled. Stuck.
These were the words Kelly Castillo used to describe her experience in school after returning to New York City following seven years living in the Dominican Republic.
At age 12, she was placed into English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms to build proficiency in the English language. Kelly excelled and caught up quickly, soon surpassing her peers. “Having to follow the learning speed of other students, I felt like I was not learning anything at all,” said Kelly.
Despite her many efforts to convince her mother and school officials to place her in a different school, Kelly remained in what she calls the “wrong educational setting”. She felt lost and unchallenged around students who were still struggling with the language. Though she sought more challenges in her academics, ironically, her frustration with the system led her to fall behind in her classes. Weeks of disengagement turned to months. Soon, she learned she would not be on track to graduate.
Kelly says she sunk into a deep depression and felt powerless. “I had absorbed the mentality around me. No one was listening to what I needed,” said Kelly. Something had to change.
It was a friend’s Instagram post about East Side House that gave her the sudden burst of hope she was praying for. She read everything she could find online about high schools run by East Side House. Kelly made her way to an open house for Mott Haven Community High School. “I knew right away this was where I wanted to be.”
Once East Side House entered the picture, Kelly says the shift in her life happened quickly. After Kelly’s mother agreed to sign the enrollment papers, Kelly began attending a school felt she truly belonged. “The staff saw me for who I was, they saw me for the potential I had,” said Kelly. Entering as a junior, Kelly said she felt the support she received from East Side House staff was more than just academic.
Like many students at East Side House high schools, the connection of resources through Social Services and other supports can provide the missing piece in a young person’s educational journey. Kelly believes staff helped her address emotional challenges she had long struggled with throughout her life. “I grew up without my father in my life,” said Kelly “I often felt pushed aside, but here I felt like someone really listened to me.”
Kelly not only caught up in her classes, she sped ahead. Soon she was on track to graduate, a year earlier than previously predicted. Through internships she was able to experience a taste of life in the working world and felt fueled with excitement about her future.
The ultimate turning point came with her acceptance into the Student Ambassadors Program which Kelly called the “happiest moment of her life.” Through the program, Kelly also honed her leadership abilities and developed her public speaking skills – something she never envisioned previously. Last spring, just after graduating from high school, she joined 19 other Ambassadors on a 10-day academic trip to Europe that changed her perspective on her future. As she traveled from London to Paris, visiting Rome and Florence in a whirlwind of new experiences, she felt truly a sense of power that she had never felt. “My path was clearer than it used to be and I understood there was so much more to explore.”
Exploring that path, she is now in her first year at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where she studies liberal arts. Upon completion of her second year, she plans transfer to a four year college and pursue a degree in environmental studies or journalism, possibilities that once seemed far out of her reach.
Looking back now, she realizes a dramatic shift in her life would never have happened without East Side House. “I always had it in me. I had the potential. East Side House just put wings on my back,” said Kelly.