NEW YORK—After a full day of teaching high school dropouts in the Bronx, Jennifer Martinez, 27, slumbers on the train ride home to Brooklyn. She arrives at her cozy Williamsburg apartment, greets her fiancé, and goes to bed. With little time to cook, many of the vegetables in her Community Supported Agriculture box go to waste.
Yet she wakes up the next morning to do it all again, speaking to her students so effervescently that one could never suspect her of being any other way.
Martinez is a humanities teacher at CUNY Prep, a nonprofit that helps high school dropouts ages 16 to 18 in the Bronx area earn their high school equivalency diploma and enter college.
The school opened in 2003. The building and facilities are in fresh condition, its walls coated with bright colors.
People are a product of their environment; the school intends to create a different environment for a certain population of Bronx students who have experienced so much but been given so little, said Martinez.
Some students are from Harlem, but most have spent their whole lives living in the Bronx. Last semester, Martinez took her photography elective class on a field trip to the International Center of Photography museum in Midtown Manhattan. Despite only being an hour’s ride away, some of the students had never been to Manhattan before.
“It’s heartbreaking considering all the challenges that our student population face,” Martinez said. Many are teenagers who need to provide for their children, parents, or simply cannot continue school due to intense bullying. As a result, CUNY Prep expels students who are hostile toward their classmates
“It’s really good to see the students who came thinking they were dumb, or that school is not for them, and they come and they’re successful,” she said.
The school aims to reach out to students in creative ways; one science teacher educates her class through cooking.
On Wednesday, Martinez wore a royal blue dress, especially chosen for the occasion. She played the president in her civics class, where the class learned about the constitution through their own enactment of a congressional hearing on gun control.
“It was really fun, my class is very active, it is very critical thinking based,” Martinez said.
The older students formed the Senate, others the House of Representatives. The outcome was a tie and another teacher was called in to play the vice president with the deciding vote.
“I enjoy being creative, finding something that works for people,” she said. “That’s what education is, finding out how people learn and meeting them there.”
Around 200 high school dropouts receive their General Educational Development certificate (GED) and apply to college through its program every year.
Although most students enter because of a decision to change their lifestyles, not everyone can be helped.
“It’s hard losing them. When students drop out I text them, call them. But sometimes life gets in the way, they have to take care of a parent, or a child,” she said. “They all come wanting to change something, but you know that it won’t always work considering all the challenges that our student population face.”
“These students are so smart, so creative, they just need a better environment,” she said. “We want to be that environment for them.”
An Accidental Career
Martinez never intended to become a teacher.
She grew up on a ranch in San Antonio, Texas. As a child, her daily routine consisted of coming home from school, setting down her backpack, and getting on her horse.
After graduating with a photojournalism degree from the University of Texas, Martinez moved out to El Dorado, Ark., to be a photographer for a small newspaper.
“People just don’t move to El Dorado,” she said. The town had a population of 18,884, according to 2010 census data.
“I think everyone should experience a small town,” Martinez said. “Some of the best people I’ve ever met were from there.”
She later received a master’s in international relations at Alliant International University in California.
“I originally wanted to be a diplomat, I wanted to travel the world. … I kept trying to not do education,” she said.
That all changed when she moved to Mexico to connect with her roots.
[related-left]“It was in Mexico that I found out I loved teaching, and it was completely by accident,” she said. “But those were the moments when I realized … I was invested in it.”
The most viable job for Martinez at the time was to teach an adult business English class.
Most of the people there hoped to learn English to further their careers, but one woman just wanted to read bedtime stories to her bilingual daughter.
“When she said she wanted to learn English to read to her daughter, something just happened, I felt that education really matters, it really moved me when she said that,” Martinez said.
“I kept trying to not do education, but it turned out to be the thing that made me feel alive, made me feel connected with people.”