Top student: 'Thought I was going to lose'
At Wyandanch High School, Sabrina Morales often walked past a well-known proverb at the entrance: "It takes a village to raise a child."
This year -- her senior year -- she said she fully appreciates what that means. Morales is the student an entire educational village banded together to help when hardships sent her into an academic tailspin. It gave her the will not to surrender, but to succeed.
Morales, 17, is valedictorian of the Class of 2012, an honor that, for her, includes a full scholarship to St. Joseph's College. The distinction is hard-won: In the fall, crises in her family, including eviction from their Wyandanch home, forced Morales and her father to live with her paternal grandmother in Jamaica, Queens. Her grades started to drop and she missed multiple classes and exams.
The intervention and commitment of a guidance counselor, a principal and an assistant principal, teachers and a sweeping college-prep counseling program made the difference.
"I really thought I was going to lose it all," Morales said in an interview. "I'm really grateful to everyone who supported me."
Guidance counselor Jamie Ward said Morales' success had a deeper urgency for the team of educators who invested extra time and care. Educators at the high school wrestle daily with this daunting reality: Nearly 70 percent of their students are from families that receive public assistance payments and only about 28 percent go on to four-year colleges, according to recent state Education Department statistics. Last year's bare-bones budget meant teacher layoffs and program cuts.
"We all needed to support her to keep her on track," said Ward, who graduated from the high school in 1993 and is one of only two guidance counselors for its 536 students. "She is our valedictorian, and she represents the majority of what our students are going through."
Move to Wyandanch
Morales was in seventh grade in 2007, when she moved from Brooklyn with her father, stepmother, three stepsisters, her half-brother, two dogs and two cats to Wyandanch and to a school district that is Long Island's poorest in terms of taxable property and income.
Her father, Raimondo Morales, recalled that she had learned to read before she was 2 and that she was a good student in city schools. He was drawn to Wyandanch from the city because he found an affordable home with front lawns and a backyard big enough for a pool and a swing set.
In her first year at Milton L. Olive Middle School, Sabrina Morales became a top student and was named the school's highest academic performer.
At Wyandanch High, her teachers described her as the kind of student who has a consistent work ethic and doesn't ask for help much.
The family struggled. They lost their home with the big backyard to foreclosure, and they moved for a time into a rental in Wyandanch. But Morales remained focused, and her grades did not slip.
Morales was inducted into the National Honor Society, and played in the chess club. Mostly she kept to herself and focused on her studies, finding satisfaction in an accounting class where she liked to sort numbers and make calculations. Something about the order of it appealed to her, she said.
As her senior year began, Morales was on track to be named valedictorian, with a grade-point average above 4.0.
Her father was working two jobs, one as a cook at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Manhattan and another delivering pizza. But Raimondo Morales said he had to give up the delivery job because he physically couldn't continue to do both, causing a drop in income. They were evicted in November.
At the same time, the family was breaking apart: Sabrina's father and stepmother split up. Her stepsisters and half-brother went to live primarily with their mother in Brooklyn. She occasionally stayed with her mother in Brooklyn, but mostly she and her dad lived with his mother in the home where he grew up in Jamaica.
Raimondo Morales said he asked the school district whether Sabrina could stay in Wyandanch schools. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, the primary piece of federal legislation dealing with the education of homeless children in the nation's public schools, transportation could be provided from distant Queens to the high school.
"I didn't want her to give up," her father said.
Sabrina Morales was desperate to continue her senior year at Wyandanch.
"She came in teary-eyed," principal Paul Sibblies said. "She said she wanted to finish her academic career in Wyandanch. She said to me, 'You can't let this happen. You have to work this out.' "
The school administrators found a way. It took time to set up the transportation. From Jamaica, she had to take a mini-school bus at 6 a.m. for the nearly hourlong ride. It was a lonely trip: She was the only passenger. She often was a few minutes late for the 7:46 a.m. opening bell.
The dislocation and rough schedule took its toll. Morales started to miss days of school. Her father said he had a hard time getting her to wake up in the morning. She just seemed to lose her drive, Ward, the guidance counselor, said. And she missed her whole family being together.
Her stellar scores fell into the 60s and 70s. When she saw her grades after the first quarter, she burst into tears. "It was really stressful," she said. "I never had such low grades."
Help on hand
Noticing the change in her grades and demeanor, Ward called Morales into her office. In her high school years, Ward was a standout basketball star who went on to Monmouth University in New Jersey on scholarship. Her former coach, Warren Fuller, remembered her as the kind of player who would never give up, no matter how many points the team was down.
Ward chose to return to her home district in 2000. Surprising those who thought she would be a coach, she decided to be a special-education teacher and later became a guidance counselor.
She organizes college days and visits from university representatives. Her office walls are lined with prep tips and plastered with college banners and T-shirts.
"I told Sabrina, 'You are not the only one. You are not the only student in a challenging situation.' " Reviewing the schoolwork Morales had missed, Ward told her, "Let's get together and find out how you are going to be able to make these things up."
The Wyandanch district has been a partner with the Institute for Student Achievement, a nonprofit based in Carle Place that helps turn around schools with at-risk students. Under ISA's model of "distributed counseling," support services are coordinated through all the school's professional resources -- from the psychologist to the math teacher to the librarian to the principal, and more.
To rescue Morales, a team of educators went into action under Sibblies and assistant principal Michelle D'Amico-Laux.
Morales took makeup exams watched by teachers on their lunch periods. Counselors met with her regularly. When Morales wasn't at school, Ward was in constant communication via cellphone or text messages. And Ward wouldn't let Morales drop any difficult classes, such as pre-calculus, because she needed such courses to reach her career goal: to become an accountant.
Morales often would study in the school library or do makeup work there, like she did last Thursday for an English paper that was due.
"I told her 'You're going to succeed,' " said Erika Wall, the library's media specialist.
Hard works pays off
Morales' grades bounced back. In January, she was officially named the school's valedictorian.
She earned a full scholarship from St. Joseph's. But there was still another obstacle that Morales' Wyandanch support team had to help her overcome.
The scholarship was to the Patchogue campus, which does not offer housing. But Ward and Sibblies had toured St. Joseph's campus in Brooklyn for the first time last fall, and knew it had dormitories. Ward made a call.
The Brooklyn campus accepted Morales on the scholarship, and she qualified for housing as well. Morales couldn't wait to tell her father.
"I had the acceptance letter and I got up and hugged him," she said. "I was jumping up and down, 'I got it. I got it. I got it.' "
Ward cautioned that many challenges remain. The family is still fractured. Raimondo Morales said he would like to return to live in Wyandanch, but still can't afford it. Sabrina Morales still has a tough round-trip bus ride on weekdays. A brief illness forced her to miss more school days and even the district's valedictorian honors dinner last month at the Melville Marriott.
"This is not a fairy tale. Things are not fixed overnight," Ward said.
But the group of educators who put Morales back on track believe extraordinary efforts to help Wyandanch's children stay in school and make it to graduation are worth it.
"Not everyone who's here, stays here," Ward said. "We are holding on to the one that is."
Grade point average: Above 4.0
- Valedictorian, Wyandanch High School
Interests: Reading, especially the "Chaos Walking" series of young adult novels.
Career goal: Accountant.
An entire educational village banded together to help Sabrina Morales when hardships sent her into an academic tailspin. Some of the staff members at Wyandanch High who helped her are:
Paul Sibblies, principal
Helped coordinate Morales' transportation, fostered relationship with St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, which offers scholarships and housing help.
"When you have students like Sabrina, who are self-motivated and have the potential to reach every goal ... we became a support force behind her. ... I felt that going to St. Joseph's helped her to be where she is at this time."
Sandy Reiher, Advanced Placement English teacher
Spent her prep periods with Morales while she did makeup work.
"She'd show up and we would work on whatever she needed help with. I made sure she did the work.. . . She is extremely intelligent, and I think she is the best writer in the school. Even with missing so many classes, she was still the best writer. It is such a shame this had to happen this year."
Erika Wall, media specialist in school library
Was in the library when Morales often came to take makeup exams or do makeup work.
"I just made sure she had the resources to do what she needed to do. She would come to the library to study and I would tell her, 'You're going to make it.' "
Jamie Ward, guidance counselor
Remained in constant contact with Morales via cellphone and text messages, met with her regularly, helped schedule her makeup work and assisted with college and scholarship paperwork.
"It was important for Sabrina to not fail. . . . She represents the majority of what our kids go through. If we could get someone like her, who was valedictorian, to succeed, she would be an inspiration for all of the other students to not give up and to persevere."
Michelle D'Amico-Laux, assistant principal
Kept tabs on Morales' progress through her teachers and guidance counselor.
"I spoke with the guidance counselor and her teachers to make sure she had the opportunities to make up lost work. And I told her if she needed anything, I was here for her."
Alejandra Fonseca, Spanish III teacher
Scheduled makeup work and printed out progress reports so Morales could see what work she needed to do for the course.
"I helped her improve her bilingual skills -- and writing most of all. We tried to keep her on track. We tried to motivate her and not let her home issues affect her studies."