Harrison Brisbon-McKinnon leans forward in his seat, asking for a minute to think. Outside, the sound of a leaky ceiling drips into the background of our conversation. Inside, Harrison stands out behind a cascade of motivational posters, the largest of which reads Think Like A Historian! in bold, white letters. He reminisces on his childhood memories of Poughkeepsie. “It was like the Garden of Eden,” he says. “I remember the sun was hot. The trees were swaying. It was gorgeous.”
Harrison is a senior at Poughkeepsie High School. A lifelong native of the city, he is his mother’s only child and his father’s seventh. His youth consisted of gatherings on his street, neighbors who doubled as family, and a household brimming with cousins. But his relationship to the city is not what it once was. “It kind of feels like a prison now, and I hate to say that,” he says. “The way I feel now is it’s kind of like a pit, and if you don’t jump out, you’ll be stuck here.”
Harrison, who is barely 18, has lost friends to gangs and classmates to gang violence—and his experience is not unique among his peers. On February 22, Poughkeepsie High was forced into a shutdown after a student threatened gun violence against the school on Snapchat. Not that Harrison was all that surprised. “We didn’t bat an eye, actually,” he says. “I’m desensitized to this kind of violence because it’s become a common thing now.”
For Harrison, this desensitization began early. He lost his childhood best friend and neighbor to a local gang. As the two entered middle school, the friend’s affiliation grew stronger, and the two stopped talking. By the time they were sophomores in high school, Harrison was focused on finding extracurriculars and his former friend, he believes, had dropped out.
Harrison thinks that his understanding of Poughkeepsie began shifting during these years. After attending the more cloistered Clinton Elementary as a child, his exposure to the larger Poughkeepsie Middle School was revelatory. At Clinton, he says, “I had tight walls protecting me, and when I entered middle school, those walls fell apart. I got to see Poughkeepsie for what it was, for most people.”
Those years also brought Harrison a better understanding of the systemic nature of Poughkeepsie’s problems, which he now describes as cyclical. Pointing to the school district’s decades-long battle with racism and the threat of gun and gang violence, he says that past generations who had been “betrayed” by the district in turn raised families with little expectations for a solid education. That betrayal could take on many forms: teacher turnover, limited literacy, or simply a lack of emotional support. Generational failure became the root of what Harrison sees as Poughkeepsie High’s “sometimes defeated attitude.” In turn, it produced a bottleneck where only few can succeed. “It’s a pit because only so many of us can get out,” he says. “And it feels like right now we have to climb up on one another in order to make it out of here at all.”
I asked Harrison whether he had ever imagined leaving, or if he was upset that he’d had to stay for so long. It was clear he had never considered an alternative.
“It’s home, it’s safe, it’s familiar. Not only is it safe because I know it, it’s safe because I’m respected here,” he says. “I’ve processed Poughkeepsie’s violence not as an act of an individual, but because of the failures of a system. I’m not afraid of the school or the people around me because they are wicked people. I recognize their behavior is an effect of systemic failure. I’m not afraid of this objectively evil thing out there. There’s no big baddie.”
The Origins of Decline
Poughkeepsie High School was founded in 1857 on the second floor of an elementary school building. Despite its 165-year presence in the community, the school currently finds itself in a difficult situation. In 2019, the most recent year of available graduation data, PHS graduated 187 of its 329 enrolled students, the lowest mark in Dutchess County.
For the district, many of these systemic struggles originated in 1942. That year, IBM opened a plant in Spackenkill, a hamlet in the town of Poughkeepsie. The company began pulling its newly hired employees, who were typically wealthy and educated, out of Poughkeepsie and into Spackenkill. In turn, property values began to fall and the population quickly followed.
For five years, Poughkeepsie and Spackenkill residents shared Poughkeepsie High School. But as the Spackenkill district continued to grow wealthier and whiter, they began demanding a school of their own. Over the next two decades, the Spackenkill Board of Education and its residents fought for independent support from IBM and the introduction of their own separate high school. In 1971, they got what they wanted, and Spackenkill High School went into construction.
The 50 years since have been brutal for Poughkeepsie High School. The falling land values pushed the property taxes that funded the school further down. Insufficient funding and Poughkeepsie’s reputation as a failing district caused significant turnover among administration, resulting, most notably, in an administrative carousel that saw six different principals and four different superintendents take the lead over the last 14 years.
Over the last decade, teacher turnover, high dropout rates, and the unexpected and disastrous onset of COVID have hampered the district. But there’s a large, looming figure now working to change the narrative. Eric Jay Rosser was a collegiate basketball star at the University of Buffalo who turned that career in for one focused on education. The Poughkeepsie City School District superintendent since 2019, he stepped in for Nicole Williams, who was bought out by the district for $430,000. When I asked Rosser how important being a stable presence was for him, he was quick to shrug off any other option. “I’m actually a resident of the city of Poughkeepsie,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m not some apartment dweller. I actually bought a house here in the community.”
Rosser sees solutions as not only necessary, but realistic. He says the school is no longer underfunded, citing a small windfall from a 2007 lawsuit alleging that small city school districts in New York State were not receiving the money they needed. After a recent judgment in favor of the districts, funding began to improve. While the Poughkeepsie City School District’s budget for the next school year has not been confirmed yet, Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed executive budget includes $31.3 billion in aid for the 2022-23 school year, the most ever. Along with that, Rosser says the district is expecting to see an approximately $8 million increase in allocated funds, a jump of nearly 10 percent from the current budget.
Given this sudden boost, Rosser’s current priority seems to be solving the especially high dropout rate of English Language Learner students at Poughkeepsie High. In 2019, 42 percent of all ELL students dropped out. Rosser acknowledges that the school isn’t doing enough to help that population. But some of that is out of their control, he says. Finding bilingual teachers who live in the community has been a significant challenge.
That dearth extends beyond the ELL program. Rosser says the school has a need for teachers who can support both their students with exceptionalities and those who have the greatest level of academic and emotional need.
Rosser has had a more immediate impact with the work he’s done to directly support these communities. Almost right away, the school established an office dedicated solely to ELL students within the district. That office brought with it some necessary changes: a coordinator ensuring standard practice across all district schools, an increase in the number of ELL teachers at each school, and a pilot after-school program at Morse Elementary that seeks to meet the educational and social needs of its ELL students.
But Rosser has little interest in celebrating any progress. He jumps from solution to solution in conversation, rarely pausing to acknowledge the challenges. “My mother would tell you this is one of my positives and an Achilles heel,” he says. “I don’t celebrate long. So while it makes me feel good, I don’t celebrate it and wear it as a badge.”
His determination represents a culture change within the district. Poughkeepsie High, long mired in controversy and uncertainty, now seems to be a growing source of pride for students and teachers. Many of the people interviewed for this story made clear that they had no interest in bashing the city’s only public high school. Instead, they want a narrative focused on change.
Against the Tide
I met Harrison for the first time in Room 209, a social studies classroom that had been his refuge since the early years of high school. There, in the corner of the room providing Harrison with extra reading material, was his economics teacher, Shanna Andrawis.
Andrawis is a California native who graduated college chasing musical aspirations. Having received degrees in history and music, her background was never centered on education. To help make ends meet, however, she worked as a tutor with the Princeton Review and eventually found work designing standardized tests with Education Testing Service. But it wasn’t until her husband got a job at Vassar College that she decided to fully make the transition into teaching.
She chose Poughkeepsie High in part because she felt a need to serve the community that she lived in, but also because she understood the impact of a good education. “As a first-generation college student, I understood how transformative education could be,” she says. “Because education gave that to me, I wanted to help give it to other students.” Andrawis earned her teaching certification a few months after moving to Poughkeepsie and, in the 14 years since, has not taught elsewhere.
Early on, she recognized the prevalence and impact of certain systemic hurdles that were out of her or the school’s control: limited resources, sporadic funding, broken facilities. Many of these structural issues persist, and the onset of COVID-19 and virtual learning underscored the challenges they present. The school struggled for months to provide students with the computers necessary for online learning, for example. “That was really frustrating,” Andrawis says. “It’s hard to feel like you’re being successful when you have to work under those conditions.”
That delay meant that many of the school’s classes, Andrawis’s included, were inevitably going to fall behind. When the 2020-21 school year began remotely, many households across the district had to share a single Chromebook; it would take until February before every child had their own computer. “For many months, students were only receiving about 20 to 30 percent of the instructional time that they would have received had they had a device in their hand in September,” Andrawis says. During those months, the school adopted a modified schedule that meant Andrawis only saw her classes for 20 minutes each every other day.
The altered schedule pushed her to rethink the way she approaches teaching. The challenge of condensing a curriculum while also reformatting it for a digital screen proved to be nearly impossible. “It felt like we were rewriting everything,” she says. “It was just really overwhelming.” Beyond that, COVID left many of Andrawis’s students forced to care for siblings while their parents worked. “Some of them aren’t coming to class because they have three or four siblings that they’ve been left at home to take care of,” she says. “You just really feel stressed out on their behalf.”
Recent research into the consequences of COVID-related school closures have demonstrated that changes induced by the virus have had a significant impact on learning and performance. A recent study from Goethe University, in Frankfurt, and the Center for Educational Measurement, in Oslo, found deficits in mathematics, reading, and science across the globe. It’s not difficult to imagine the same happening in Poughkeepsie.
You never know when you’re gonna need to be that person. You just need to be open to that.
— Shanna Andrawis
Andrawis collaborates with a number of programs at Vassar College, and works hard to expose her students to the value of a secondary education. She opens up her classroom to give students an escape from the stresses of high school. More than anything else, she has tried to be a pillar of stability at an institution that isn’t quite used to that. She says that consistent teaching practices are necessary, especially at a school where kids may find themselves a few grade levels behind. But administrative turnover makes that consistency impossible. “Whenever we have an administrative interruption, those practices are suddenly disturbed,” she says.
The students most impacted are those with the highest level of emotional and academic risk. According to Andrawis, for nearly a decade the school has tried to institute a Social and Emotional Learning program aimed at helping those exact students. But with each new administrative shift, the program was halted. “It’s difficult, and it does feel like my ability to grow as an educator has been stunted by that,” Andrawis says. “I haven’t been able to be in a program, adopt it, and see it come to fruition.”
Despite that frustration, she believes the school is not at fault for some of its struggles. Andrawis says that the state government puts immense pressure on its educators to quickly correct any underperformance, often without providing the necessary resources. When that pressure becomes too immense, administrators leave. “It’s not that the requirements are unfair, it’s the expectation that you meet those requirements without being given the tools and resources you need to get there,” she says. “It’s a slap in the face to these kids, their families, and the community.”
But Andrawis has remained determined to be a reminder to her students that somebody within the school will always care about them. Her classroom has often functioned as the Social and Emotional Learning program that the school has been missing. That kind of support takes on many forms: motivating students to join extracurriculars, advocating on their behalf to other teachers, or simply being a companion during lunchtime. Andrawis recalls a moment when one of her students was struggling to complete an assignment for a different class. They were homeless, and already barely getting through their final year of high school. The other teacher was demanding that the student complete the assignment on time. With the student’s permission, Andrawis went to the teacher and explained their situation. He had no idea. The student was given an extension, completed the assignment, and graduated on time. This moment didn’t seem uncommon to Andrawis. “You never know when you’re gonna need to be that person,” she says. “You just need to be open to that. You need to be that person for them.”
Harrison knew for a long time that he would go to college, and while the decision was simple, the process was far from it. He turned in his first application on November 13, an Early Decision directed to Vassar College. He remembers that day as miserable. “I remember the next week I took my hair out, and I had so much hair loss,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, these past 90 days have been horrible.’”
Like many of his classmates, Harrison was working to become a first-generation college student. Because of that, he had little direction throughout the application process. It almost became too much for him. “I felt myself drowning in it,” he says.
Where he found guidance was in the Exploring Colleges program. Started by Vassar College, the program was initially advertised as a space for students to learn about the procedures and pathways necessary to enter university. In many ways, it remains that. But over time, a community has developed between the students and the program’s coordinator, Sara Inoa.
Inoa’s energy is infectious. Well before the clock strikes 3pm, an assortment of the program’s regulars filter into Room 120, eager to greet Inoa as she slowly wheels in the day’s activity. Inoa matches their energy with vulnerability. The first time I saw her interact with her students was February 14. Walking into the room, it was clear she was running low. But rather than place that fatigue onto her students, she was honest. “I’m feeling really tired today, you know,” she sighed. “Who wants a hug?” Within seconds, she was lost among a sea of high school students adamant on making her feel better.
I want a program that tells students they’re worthy of their dreams.
— Sara Inoa
Like Andrawis, Inoa’s background is in art. Still an aspiring musician, writer, and artist, she was working as a cashier at a liquor store before a friend recommended she apply for the Exploring Colleges position. That retail experience was central to her fit with the program, she says. “It took the stick out of my ass,” she says. “I built a really strong community with my coworkers there.”
Coming into the program, Inoa was unsure of what her role would be and what her work might even look like. But her goal has been to foster a community that isn’t just academic, but loving. “I want a community that’s going to support one another,” she says. “I want them to support themselves and each other after graduation, in life. I want a program that tells students they’re worthy of their dreams.”
Inoa’s emphasis on love is not lost on her students. Two of the program’s regulars, Ava Cooper and Daniel Johnson, see the emotional support Exploring Colleges provides as its biggest strength. Ava is an avid writer, and the support she receives within the program has only grown that passion. “They encourage my writing,” she says. “Every time I see one of the mentors, he’s always asking me if I’ve written something, and I’m able to show him.”
Exploring Colleges is not the only program that exists to support Poughkeepsie public school students. It is part of Vassar’s broader Education Collaboration initiative, which offers different programs to help kids across grade levels within the Poughkeepsie City School District. Marist College runs a similar program, Upward Bound, which focuses on providing kids with the academic resources they need to advance toward a secondary education.
Beyond the academy is the Poughkeepsie Children’s Cabinet. Founded by three locals and chaired by Superintendent Rosser and Mayor Rob Rolison, it’s a collective focused on building a cradle-to-career agenda for kids in the area that hopes to create long-term systemic changes for students in the city’s school district. The Children’s Cabinet has already helped establish the city of Poughkeepsie’s first Division of Youth Opportunity and Development and continues to set its sight on broad, all-encompassing impact. “We’re missing a ton of kids,” says cofounder Rob Watson. “How do we develop a system that benefits each child, where all means all? That’s a system-level approach—we’re trying to do system changes.”
Even when returning to its core goal, Exploring Colleges has exposed PHS students to the values of a secondary education in ways the high school hadn’t been practicing. “There are so many kind people there,” Daniel says. “The way they explain their experience with college, you start to think, maybe college isn’t that bad.” That exposure, they say, stands in stark contrast to the often disciplinarian perspective that the high school takes on college, solely focusing on the academic rigor and ignoring the more social aspects.
The program’s emphasis on emotional support is also immensely valuable in times of tragedy. In mid-November, gunshots were fired outside the school grounds. Classes were shut down for days and some students were understandably shaken. In that moment, Exploring Colleges became a community of support. Inoa used the program’s next meeting to lead a debrief around what had happened. She made hot chocolate and asked the students to write down six things: three feelings they had in the moment, two facts they knew about the situation, and one question they had regarding what happened. The responses reflected a student body that was exhausted, tired of being afraid. “I have memories about my own experience,” wrote one student. Another wrote down, “I think nothing will change because our school has no order.” Inoa then led a long conversation and then took them out to sushi.
Where You Come From
A few months after Harrison submitted his application to Vassar, he was accepted. It means he’ll be going to college only six minutes from the high school that has already exposed him to so much. That proximity is no accident. “Everything I am is because of Poughkeepsie, for better or for worse,” he says.
For Harrison, staying local is an opportunity for him to show many of the kids who grew up in the same neighborhoods he did, including his own cousins, that they can be successful. “No matter where you come from, it doesn’t dictate where you’re going to go,” he says.
That pride may stand in juxtaposition to many of the frustrations that highlighted Harrison’s high school experience, but they represent an important feature of Poughkeepsie’s students: resilience. Constant adversity creates challenges, of course, but also bonds. Administrators, teachers, and students all understand their struggles, but refuse to be defined by them, and students like Harrison represent a movement that no longer tolerates Poughkeepsie High being viewed as a second-class institution.
“People don’t realize it’s innocent children who become products of failure; they’re not wicked,” Harrison says. “They don’t see the people fighting against the system, fighting through it. People like me.
“And we have great food, too,” he adds with a laugh. “People don’t say that.”
This article was published in the April 2022 issue of Chronogram.