Earlier this summer at Blue Engine’s second annual fundraiser, 16 year old WHEELS student Joana Batista climbed to the podium in front of 225 people to tell her story. This is what she said.
Good evening. My name is Joana Denise Batista. I am 16 years old and just graduated from 8th grade at WHEELS.
I was born in Washington Heights. Like any typical family, my family had its problems. My mother did what was best for me, so when I was three years old she sent me to live in the Dominican Republic with her aunt.
In DR, I got placed into this neighborhood school around the corner from my house. I remember being in class sitting down with my notebook ready and my pencil in hand, noticing that no one was paying attention and the teacher was talking on her cell phone. Every single day, we had to copy what was written on the board. There was no explanation of what it meant. I didn’t even know what I was writing.
As time went on, things only got worse. Like my classmates, I threw paper airplanes, picked fights, and blew bubbles. Two years passed, and I realized I had learned nothing.
Finally, once the situation back home had calmed down a little, my mother decided to bring me back to New York. I remember getting off the plane in New York City and I couldn’t believe how nice the airport was, how clean the floors were. I felt like I went from poor to rich overnight. I couldn’t even remember living in New York City as a baby, so this felt brand new to me. Like I was born in DR coming to New York City for the first time. I didn’t recognize my mother when she picked me up.
That September, I started first grade. School was really hard for me because I didn’t speak English. When I had to write my name in my notebook, I wrote my first and middle name, because I didn’t know what “last name” meant. So my teacher thought my last name was Denise until my mother corrected her. I was 6 and I couldn’t write my full name.
When I looked at my report card on the last day of school, it said next year I would be in first grade. I hadn’t passed.
The next September, my mom placed me in a different school. My new school made a mistake and placed me in second grade. I was put in a special ed class with 4 teachers because I was so slow.
By then, I had picked up English, but writing and reading was another story. We started with the ABCs. I learned to sound out words, reading baby books with rhyming words and pictures. At the end of the year, I had made a huge improvement with the help of all my teachers. I could officially sit down and read a complete sentence.
But at the end of the year, when my brother’s social worker showed up to school to see how I was doing, he asked my teacher if I was going to pass. In front of me, she said “unfortunately not.”
So, I started second grade again. This time, it was really different because I wasn’t in a special ed classroom anymore and I only had one teacher.
I was asked for homework to read a book and write a book log. I didn’t know what it was, but I was too scared to ask my teacher because I didn’t want her to know I couldn’t read. I turned in my book log with only two words written down.
The next day when she checked my homework, she took me out to the hallway and yelled at me for being lazy. I had to confess to her that I couldn’t read. To help me, my teacher asked my old special ed teachers to work with me for 40 minutes before school every single morning. With their help, I was learning how to read.
I made a lot of progress, but at the end of the year, my reading level wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I didn’t understand the passages in the testing booklets in our state exams.
I didn’t pass. I was two reading levels behind.
That next September, I started second grade for a third time. This time, it was a piece of cake for me. I picked everything up really quickly and when I got my final report card that year, I saw that I would be entering the advanced third grade class. I was so happy that I cried.
Since then, I have passed every grade. But each year, the work gets more challenging. While reading is no longer an issue for me, math gets scarier by the minute.
I am 16 and I’m in the 8th grade. Most of my classmates are 14. I can’t afford to fail one more time, because if I do, I will be too old to be in high school once I get to senior year. This pressure motivates me to work harder. But it also makes it very scary for me when I don’t understand something I am learning.
I can’t afford to fail.
8th grade math is beyond hard. When I started math this year, I thought the world was ending.
I don’t know what I would have done without Ms. Pichardo and Mr. Kickham by my side. One of my biggest struggles this year was solving for x. They would always take the time to sit with me and go over any questions I have, and they wouldn’t leave my side until I fully understood what they were teaching me.
I could never have become student of the month without their help and support. I could have never gotten a 92 on my final test if Ms. Pichardo and Mr. Kickham hadn’t taken the time to review the material with me after school and during lunch.
Thank you, Ms. Pichardo. Thank you, Mr. Kickham. Thank you, Ms. Fedyna.
Most importantly, Blue Engine. Thank you. Because if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t have them. I may not be here standing in front of you as a graduate of 8th grade.
I know I am just one student up here speaking to you. But I am not the only one. I ‘ve seen my classmates grow the way I have this year with the support of the BETAs.
I am so thankful that this program has been invented. That we have teachers—not just one—standing in front of us and making sure we understand what we need to understand.
I wish that every single student that struggles with school as much as I have would have the opportunity to work with BETAs. They will discover something about themselves that they never did, which is… if they sit down to work with determination and support, they can achieve anything they want.
Blue Engine would like to extend a special thank you to lead teacher Dimity Kirwan, whose leadership of her BETA team and dedication to the students in her classroom made Joana’s story possible.