This is the third of three stories about Lincoln Middle School in Passaic that explore the sometimes tricky transitions for students moving on to another phase of their education. Today's installment looks at the experiences of students excited about graduation and the disappointment of those left behind.
PASSAIC — Daniel Morales should be starting his senior year in high school this fall. Instead, he will repeat the eighth grade for the fourth time.
"I'm super embarrassed," he said Tuesday as most of his classmates rehearsed for their graduation today. Next year, the 16-year-old will be joined at Lincoln Middle School by his two brothers, one 12, who will enter the seventh grade, and the other 13, who will be in the eighth grade with Daniel.
Daniel is one of 94 eighth-grade students at the school who will not graduate and will be left back. Another 112 students will spend a month in summer school making up classes they failed. If they pass, they can go on to high school.
"Uuuuuuuuugh," said Christopher "Snowy" Gil, 15, when asked about next year. He will repeat the eighth grade, as he did the fifth grade. "I'll be able to walk the halls with my eyes closed, and that's not good at all."
In contrast, about 600 other eighth-graders will happily (if a bit anxiously) focus on their looming freshman year. Stephanie Mejia, 14, is all set for Friday with a new black-and-cream dress. But she's nervous, too. "I'm afraid I'll mess up," she said, "fall or trip."
Thus the scene this week at Lincoln Middle School has been one of mixed emotions as many students mark their last days in junior high. For some — those sitting graduation out — frustration and shame dominated their feelings. Others were giddy at the thought of high school, their accomplishments, and the pomp and circumstance that will end their year.
On Wednesday, Jesus Sanchez, 14, sat quietly in the school auditorium during rehearsal, waiting for his chance to ascend the stage, shake hands with a teacher, and walk down the other side. Looking ahead to graduation and next year in high school, he said he felt like a freed bird.
"I feel like I'm coming out of a bird cage, and I feel successful," he said. "I feel special, in a good way. I feel recognized."
His classmate, Raquel Santiago, 14, said this graduation brings her one step closer to the "real world."
"I feel very proud of myself," she said, "because for everything I've been through, this is a great accomplishment."
Walk out the door, across the hallway, down one floor, and the cafeteria was an entirely different scene. On Wednesday, students sat idly, some with their heads down, some chatting with friends. If graduation was on their minds, it was likely for different reasons. This is where students who will not advance this week passed the morning.
"I'm just sad that I'm not going to graduate with my friends and that I have to go to summer school," said Yomaly Aguilar, 15. She said she failed language arts.
Grisel Leon, 13, said she failed gym, social studies, language arts and computers. "I feel angry about being left back," she said. But she didn't blame anyone else. "It's my fault."
The school's principal, John Scozzaro, said the high number of students being held back and attending summer school is because of stricter passing requirements implemented last fall. Teachers and administrators noticed the large number of failing students after the first marking period in October and wanted to send a message that school is serious and failing has serious consequences. To be promoted, students must now pass all subjects. The number of classes students fail and whether they are electives or majors such as math, science or language arts, determines if they have to go to summer school or repeat a grade.
"The message is: This is not just a get-over school," Scozzaro said. "To get out of Lincoln Middle School, you have to be a serious student."
State law requires that parents and guardians make children attend school between the ages of 6 and 16. After that, they cannot be held legally responsible for a child who drops out. Public schools, however, are required to accept students between the ages of 5 and 20.Daniel Morales said every year he slacks off. "I don't do nothing," he said. "I go to school late. I cut class." Though he often does well in the first marking period and tries to make up for his bad grades that come later, "it's too late," he said.
Some students acknowledged other distractions that have gotten in the way of completing homework assignments or studying for tests. Christopher Gil said that in the beginning of the year, he was "affiliated" with a gang. He said he no longer is. Marimar Calixto, 14, also held back, said she was in a gang in the past and that her involvement contributed to her failure.
"I think I used to pay more attention to gangs than my schoolwork," she said.
Scozzaro worries that the older students are in middle school, the less likely it is they will ultimately graduate high school or go to college. Having to repeat a grade is one indicator that a student will drop out and take low-paying jobs, "because that's all they can get," he said. "It just makes your whole life more difficult."
The lessons of this unpleasant time have not escaped those staying behind this summer and next year. Christopher said he still intends to be the first in his family to graduate.
But will he? Can he? "Of course," Christopher said.
***PHOTO - Danielle p. Richards / Staff Photographer Elijah Rosas couldn't contain his enthusiasm during the eighth grade rehearsal for today's graduation at Lincoln Middle School. About 600 students will move on to high school, but more than 200 face the possibility of repeating the year.