Life has not been easy for Lisa Watson. Before the end of middle school, her brother was murdered. She became the caretaker of her mother who has learning disabilities, she almost died from salmonella-typhoid fever, and she had lived in numerous shelters across NYC.
Enduring just one of these obstacles is enough for some students to lose focus on their education. But for Watson, the worst life could throw her way would not be enough to distract her from her goal of going to college.
“Those few years were really hard because me and my mom were sleeping on the floor and had a lot going on,” Watson said. “I just stayed focused because I knew I wasn’t going to live like this forever. I knew I would be making a future for myself, I wouldn’t let what was happening distract me from my end goal.”
Watson is one of the hundreds of Uncommon Schools students last week who declared where they were going to college at three separate high schools in Brooklyn, Uncommon Charter High School (UCHS), Uncommon Collegiate Charter (UCC) and Uncommon Preparatory Charter (UPC).
As the largest charter school network in Brooklyn, more and more Brooklyn students are graduating from an Uncommon high school–putting to the test whether a K-12 system can truly make a difference when a student like Watson goes off to college. It’s Uncommon’s mission not just to get Watson to get into college–but to graduate from college.
Fewer than 15% of low-income students in the U.S. ever get a 4-year college degree. For Uncommon graduates, however, more than 50% have and the network is increasingly getting recognized for the innovative practices happening inside of its schools to ensure that its students are ready to succeed in and graduate from college. It has one of the highest college graduation rates in the country.
During her most challenging times, Watson attended Williamsburg Collegiate, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network, which operates 24 schools in Brooklyn serving over 8,000 students.
After completing 8th grade, she moved on to Uncommon Charter High School on Pacific Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Watson, who is slated to graduate from Uncommon next month, would be the first in her family to graduate from college. She’s attending Trinity College in the fall with scholarships ensuring that she does not pay anything out-of-pocket.
On Thursday, Watson joined her classmates from the Uncommon Charter High School’s graduating class to celebrate getting into college. The entire class of 90 graduates was accepted to college.
Uncommon calls the raucous celebration senior signing day. It’s modeled after the signing days high schools typically hold for a senior who has signed to a NCAA Division 1 college on an athletic scholarship. It’s one of the ways that Uncommon drives home the point that college graduation is the ultimate goal–not just graduating from high school.
Every student was called onto the stage decorated with orange and blue balloons. Two giant screens projected their photos. They strutted across the stage to their song of choice, then stood in front of a mic and announced their choice as they unfurled a t-shirt or a pennant from their college as the audience erupted into cheers.
David Berlin, the director of college completion at UCHS, said the students had sent 907 applications to different colleges. Each student was accepted to an average of 5 colleges.
Watson plans to major in Biology on a pre-med track. Her goal is to become a dermatologist.
Yarleny Andeliz is headed to the University of Rochester in the fall and plans to major in Engineering. Her parents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic and do not speak English.
Andeliz credits the Project Lead the Way courses offered at Uncommon Charter High School as the reason she is interested in STEM. The hands-on activities in Aerospace Engineering specifically interested her and is one of the reasons she landed on Engineering as her major.
“She is an exemplar STEM student who has received accolades from PLTW because she has taken advantage of every opportunity at our school,” said Berlin, Andeliz’s college counselor. “She is determined to become a mechanical engineer that helps companies build eco-friendly structures.”
The school she is now leaving is close to her heart, Andeliz said reflecting on her middle and high school experience. “I would not have taken my education so seriously if I went to a different school. If I had gone to another school, I wouldn’t be going to the University of Rochester.”