KRULWICH: This is a story about beginnings, so let's start here. It's time for school, and Fantcha is trying to wake up her 20-year-old daughter, hiding there under the polar bear, Rilda.
RILDA: My classes start at ten o'clock and usually I'm late, almost everyday.
KRULWICH: Today is no exception. Rilda grew up in Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa. She dropped out of high school there. But now she's in America. "Now that you're here," says mom, "school comes first," a sentiment shared by Rilda's teacher, Ryan Reft who is, at this moment, waiting for Rilda to arrive. She is five minutes late and Mr. Reft…
REFT: Good luck, kids.
KRULWICH: …is giving a test. Yusuf is here, but then Yusuf is always on time. But Rilda?
REFT: When are you going to buy a watch?
KRULWICH: Ten minutes late.
REFT: You know I get lonely when that second attendance bell rings and not all my students are here?
I just like to see these kids do well. I'll say that. I know they need to be pushed. With Rilda, I've been really trying to get her to come on time. Just some basic stuff. It's really been a challenge. She's had a real problem with it.
KRULWICH: Rilda came to this school just over a year ago. On the day she arrived she says she knew only how to say "Hi" and "I'm Rilda."
KRULWICH: So what did you do?
RILDA: At the beginning they had to take me out of class because I didn't understand anything.
KRULWICH: And to make matters worse, Rilda works five days a week at two jobs, one of them at this cosmetics store.
RILDA: It's not all about me. Because I'm working actually to help my family.
KRULWICH: So if you're keeping score, Rilda arrives in the U.S. with no English, in need of money, she's told she's too old to start high school, and this place has 800 more kids just as needy.
KRULWICH: You give them classes…
FRIEDMAN: Classes. Help them get a job if they need it.
KRULWICH: You'll give them a job?
FRIEDMAN: We have job counselors here.
KRULWICH: What if they need a doctor?
FRIEDMAN: We have medical help for them here too.
KRULWICH: What if they need a dentist?
KRULWICH: Howard Friedman started the Manhattan Comprehensive Public High School in 1989, and he's still the principal.
FRIEDMAN: We have people that are social workers who work here and we have lawyers.
KRULWICH: You have lawyers?
KRULWICH: Howard and his people will do everything to make sure kids like Rilda get a diploma and go to college.
KRULWICH: I need a bed.
FRIEDMAN: We have a housing expert here.
KRULWICH: I'm 18. I don't have any money for housing.
FRIEDMAN: Well that's why you're asking.
KRULWICH: You'll give me free housing?
FRIEDMAN: We'll help you find housing. It may be a group home. It may be connection with Catholic Charities. It may be putting two students together who could share the rent.
KRULWICH: So this means you have to be sort of 24-7 aware of me. I mean my full me.
KRULWICH: That's a lot to ask of a school but then, Howard designed this place for a group of teenagers you can find in most American cities kids who have dropped out of high school and kids who've just arrived in America, immigrants.
RILDA: When I got here, I was already 18. We were looking for schools and everyplace that we went they were telling us that I was already over age, that I couldn't get into a regular high school. Especially cause I didn't speak a word in English.
KRULWICH: So her mother Fantcha, who is herself struggling to make a living back home she was a singer Fantcha asked around and discovered Manhattan Comprehensive, a public school where even older teenagers can still get a high school diploma for free. Like many states, New York promises any resident a free high school education until they are 21 years old. Rilda is now 20 and Manhattan Comprehensive is her last and best chance to get that diploma. But she has to finish before the deadline, and time keeps ticking.
FANTCHA: This is the country that you have all the opportunity. But you gotta be able to take advantage of it. And for you to take advantage of it, you gotta be the greatest student.
KRULWICH: So Rilda has to get the grades and help pay the bills to honor the mother who brought her here and her grandma who raised her and sent her to America and told her just before she died, "Promise me you will succeed."
RILDA: The only thing she could talk was about how much she sacrificed, how much she worked to have her family. She wanted something different for me. My mom, everybody wants something different. And it's that something different that gives me the strength to continue and show that I can definitely make the difference.
KRULWICH: But can she do it?
One of the classes where Rilda is struggling is Ryan Reft's Advanced Placement English class.
On the other side of the room is Yusuf, who arrived in America only a few months ago from Sierra Leone. That's his friend Kelly from Nigeria. And rounding out this group we have Chung from Hong Kong, Ching Ling from Malaysia, and Fatema from Bangladesh.
Like Rilda, most of them arrived in the past two years, with very little English.
Now look. They are reading Joseph Conrad, which, by the way, has lots of words that would stump a regular high schooler.
CHING LING: A sedentary life.
REFT: What's that mean? Sedentary?
KRULWICH: Se-den-tary. These kids have to se-den-tary look up so many words, so often, they've got these… You see that thing there? That's an electronic dictionary.
So Yusuf of Sierra Leone borrows Ching Ling's machine, types in "sedentary" and bingo! There it is in Mandarin which he can't read and in English. The definition? "Done sitting down." Instant definitions because these kids must learn quickly. As with Rilda, time is not on their side.
Yusuf, for example, fled to America. He's a refugee from Sierra Leone.
YUSUF: My life was in danger.
KRULWICH: He found Manhattan Comprehensive through the International Rescue Committee. On his first day in school, he knew no one. Then, on a hunch, his teacher, Mr. Reft, sat him next to Kelly from Nigeria.
YUSUF: The teacher made the comment that this is one of the best groups in this class and just go there and they will try to make you comfortable, you know, with the lessons.
KRULWICH: Were you nervous?
YUSUF: I was a little bit nervous before going inside the group.
KRULWICH: Was this your very first class?
YUSUF: It was my second class. You know, I was nervous before getting in touch with the group members but after about thirty minutes discussion with the group members, I felt comfortable.
KRULWICH: with him particularly?
YUSUF: Yes with him particularly because he was one of the best students in the group. Yeah.
KRULWICH: So he was smart. You liked that he was smart?
YUSUF: He was smart. And he was enthusiastic, you know. He was showing his spirit of accommodation.
KRULWICH: Really? Because every time I see you guys on film, he's saying "Noooo!" And You're saying "Noooo!" And it's back and forth like this.
YUSUF: That's what makes the unity stronger, you know.
KELLY: If you ask him to pronounce his name, he's going to say "Soyinka."
KRULWICH: What are they fighting about?
YUSUF: You are the first person who I have heard saying his name is Soyinka.
KELLY: Oh, because you can mess in Nigerian.
KRULWICH: How to pronounce the name of a Nigerian playwright.
YUSUF: BBC reporters, BBC reporters...
KELLY: Forget BBC reporters, this is amazing man.
KRULWICH: And Kelly is Nigerian.
YUSUF: BBC reporters they call you by the name you call yourself.
KELLY: Pleeeease. Don't!
YUSUF: Before they interview the man they ask him, "What's your name?" He says his name is Soyinka. And within the rest of the whole interview…
KELLY: Oh man! Oh man!
YUSUF: They call him Soyinka.
KRULWICH: And they do this all the time.
KELLY: See you're making this argument so hard that I can't drop it.
YUSUF: Let's just forget it. Just forget it.
KELLY: I don't want to forget it because you're trying to pull me over to your side.
KRULWICH: So Yusuf has a friend…
ROBINSON: That's very good. Go on up to the next magnification. Okay, every body look.
KRULWICH: But the school went one better. It then gave Yusuf a pain in the butt, Mr. Robinson.
ROBINSON: Did you finish them? The two Regents exams? You read all the questions? Let me see them.
YUSUF: Let's not start that here, Mr. Robinson.
ROBINSON: Let me see them.
YUSUF: Mr. Robinson is one of my main supporters here. He's one of the factors that has helped me in really adjusting with the whole situation in America here. He's just like my dad, honestly. To summarize everything…he's just like my dad.
KRULWICH: And as the weeks pass with Kelly and his teachers, Yusuf becomes more and more comfortable in this school. But once he leaves the building, he is very much alone. He can study in the school's library, but to go home after dark through his neighborhood is not a safe proposition.
SUBWAY ANNOUNCER: Stand clear of the closing doors please.
KRULWICH: So he does his homework on the subway, even through rush hour. And as he approaches his stop, he puts his homework away, puts on the headphones, and emerges from the subway in his urban camouflage, so he can blend in, looking like anything but a refugee from Sierra Leone who just got to spend the day acting like a normal kid.
KRULWICH: When you think back to yourself 18 months ago, could you describe yourself then?
ZHAOLIN: Eighteen months ago, I was about 18. I'm a boy from Shanghai, you know. I haven't seen my father for ten, eleven years because he came here first. He applied for us, our family to come to here so, I saw my father, in person, after sooo long.
KRULWICH: Zhaolin's dad settled in New York City, got a job, a home, and when it was time to move the family to America, on the day that Zhaolin arrived day one his dad took him to Manhattan and drove him passed one of New York's public colleges, Hunter College, and said to him, "If you work hard, really hard, you can go here."
ZHAOLIN: And my father said right now you are in America. You have to prepare for your life, prepare for your future. This is the place that you can really have the opportunity to perform yourself. Show your talent. And show what you can do. You just try your best.
KRULWICH: Did you think you could do it?
KRULWICH: Definitely? 2 years ago, Zhaolin couldn't speak English, he could only sing it.
TRILLANA: First time I noticed him, he was singing in the auditorium singing "Hotel California." He was out of tune. I thought, "There's something about this kid. I said, he just kept on singing.
KRULWICH: "Hotel California," he was singing?
ZHAOLIN: It also helps to learn some English, you know, some words, some vocabulary. You know it's a little fun, so...
KRULWICH: So I wonder if the Eagles ever realized they were English teachers.
Zhaolin got better and better at English…
KRULWICH: Got himself elected to student government and helped organize the spring talent show.
ZHAOLIN: Is everybody ready for the show?
KRULWICH: The talent was many flavored. Everybody pitched in.
And yes, there were problems. Zhaolin was supposed to introduce two kids from the Dominican Republic for the opening number, but one of them, Alfany the guy here on the left he overslept. Nobody knew where they were.
We found them on the street rehearsing in a telephone booth, and we asked them, "Where've you been? You're missing."
ALFANY: Yeah, because last night my computer got messed up because I deal with computer and I was doing everything in my computer. So I was all night long awake you know fixing everything because thanks god that I have my uncle's computer so I transferred everything from the other computer. So I couldn't sleep at all. And this morning I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna sleep at 8 o'clock in the morning so I can wake up 9:30 in order to go to school. But I tell my mother, "Yo, wake me up at 8:30 because I got to go to school and by myself I couldn't do it." She say okay. So she woke up late, I woke up late. Then I had to go to the store to buy my brand, my pants and my stuff to perform there and I just got here a few minutes ago. But, responsibility is responsibility and that's why we're here.
KRULWICH: You heard him. Responsibility is responsibility. And they're here.
ALFANY AND LOUIS: Yo! My friends from China. My friends from Haiti. My friends from Europe.
KRULWICH:Yeah, the rappers came through big time and, by the way, so has Zhaolin. This spring, after only two years at Manhattan Comprehensive, Zhaolin was accepted to a prestigious eastern college, Skidmore.
ZHAOLIN: Wow! It's just so exciting.
KRULWICH: And he's going almost for free.
ZHAOLIN: And they gave me most of it. When I just came here my father said, if you can go to Hunter College, it is a very good school and now I make it for Skidmore, it is more than he expected.
XIAO MEI: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…
KRULWICH: Most of the students here understand that this place gives them a huge chance, the chance to take risks, the chance to win.
XIAO MEI: …liberty and justice for all.
KRULWICH: Or, even for Zhaolin, the chance to miss a note or two along the way. And for some, the chance may be more than they can bear, as you're about to see.
KRULWICH: You have to wonder about this school. Manhattan Comprehensive is open not five, but six days a week. Sundays here are school days.
Plus, it's open nights four nights a week, from 5 to 11 p.m. Check the windows. You see? It's dark here.
In the evenings, teenagers, mostly American born kids who've had troubles, gone to jail, dropped out of school, had babies they come here, often after work, to earn their diplomas.
And what does the school offer? Well, the school has, in its basement right in the building, a fully staffed social service center that... Well, here Eileen Hunter is adjusting the sleeve of a business suit, donated to the school.
YATES: This is already hemmed do you think?
HUNTER: I think so. I think it is hemmed…
KRULWICH: So that students can go on job interviews.
WILLIAMS: You got a belt?
KRULWICH: If you qualify, the school will feed you, pay you to tutor other kids, get you a summer job. That's why you can walk down the hallways and right next to signs for the prom, you'll find signs for financial workshops and help with your tax returns in four languages.
Then there are the teachers who teach extra catch-up classes in, well, Chinese, if you need it.
HORVAY: The price fluctuated between what?
KRULWICH: And who offer a host of different styles. Remember Rilda's teacher, Mr. Reft? And Yusuf's teacher, Mr. Robinson?
ROBINSON: You know how it is. It's like if you're mad at them and you don't say anything, it's like your parent; when your parent says nothing, then there's real trouble. But as long as they're screaming at you, everything's okay.
REFT: Listen, you try to be there for them, but I can't be anyone's parent, or anyone's mother or father, you know, there's not much I can… I can try to be there to facilitate stuff for them but I'm not going to be there for them after school when they really need the important stuff…
ROBINSON: He wants to know somebody cares. Somebody knows what's going on. And that's, you know, that's my job too is to keep up with them and make sure that they're doing all right.
REFT: I'm afraid that if I know too much about the hardship that they come from, 'cause I know most of these kids are poor. I mean, you can tell from the fact that they wear the same clothes like three days of the week and stuff like that. It's not too hard to pick up on, umm, but I'm afraid if I know too much that I will feel bad for them and won't push them as hard.
KRULWICH: Yes, they are pushed. This school goes to extraordinary lengths and what seems like extraordinary costs to push these kids to graduation. So one has to ask: Is it worth this much effort, this much energy? And here's a story that may make you wonder.
ROBERT: Let's start from the beginning.
KRULWICH: Yeah, let's do that.
ROBERT: Let's hear the William Vasquez Junior story. Start from the very beginning.
KRULWICH: When William was 2, his parents split up. He lived with his dad and a step mom. When they split up, he went back to his mom. And now he's pretty much on his own, bouncing from town to town, school to school, so he made this appeal to his cousins, Mary and Robert.
WILLIAM: I kind of begged her to say listen, I really wanna come here and live with you guys so I can finish my high school.
KRULWICH: So he moved in, started Manhattan Comprehensive. And when they asked him about goals, "What do you want to be?"
WILLIAM: As a career, I want to be an actor.
KRULWICH: And once they learned that, Eileen Hunter, the internship coordinator, said "You know what? If you get a haircut…"
HUNTER: And if we leave now we can make the 3:30 appointment I made you. He went, "Okay."
KRULWICH: And Eileen said, "We might be able to get you a paid internship at an acting school." Together they worked on a resume.
WILLIAM: Eileen says it's on good paper because if you put it towards the light you can, you can see the words.
HUNTER: I can see him as an actor. He knows, oh he knows the right things to say. You know he thanks you for your time, and for your efforts on his behalf. He's very charming.
WILLIAM: I got through it. And it went well. I didn't stutter. I didn't choke on it. So, it went pretty well.
And, I have to get permission from my grade advisor, if he'd let me, but I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem. So, I'll just speak to him.
KRULWICH: Well, it turns out there was a problem. It came up on Open House Day, the day the teachers review every student's academic record with, in William's case, his cousins Mary and Robert.
WILLIAM: This is for what class?
KRULWICH: This history course prepares students for a statewide exam called the Regents exam, says teacher Marcia McBroom, which is fine, but then she mentions that William "hasn't been around."
MCBROOM: And unfortunately, he hasn't been around.
KRULWICH: Hasn't been around?
MARY: Who hasn't been around?
MARY: He hasn't been in class?
MCBROOM: Oh no.
WILLIAM: I was in the Student Life Center office.
MCBROOM: I know. But why are you in the student life center office when you are in a Regents class?
ROBERT: This is the situation with him. This is why I'm kind of upset now. Because we took him in because he wasn't going to school. So we took him in with the understanding that all he had to do was concentrate on school.
MCBROOM: I think you could do better. I think you could turn it around. I don't think he's like a hopeless case, because nobody is. But what you're saying is, you've had your little time of fun and frolic. Now you have to start thinking of yourself more seriously and saying, "I'm going to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity I have."
ARTER: I have my teacher book downstairs, but I really don't need it for this interview.
KRULWICH: Things only get worse with William's English teacher.
MARY: Oh boy. I see the face.
ARTER: This is the Regents class, you know. It's preparing him for the test and he's not ready for the test. And I don't know if he's going to be ready by June. He has really good attendance. He just doesn't focus on his work.
WILLIAM: I will be taking the Regents for English in June.
ARTER: You think so?
WILLIAM: Yeah, I will.
ARTER: You have to be able to write an essay in an hour.
ARTER: And you know, you haven't done that. So that's your goal.
WILLIAM: That's not a goal. It's an objective. I have to do it.
MARY: He has answers for everything.
ARTER: Well. OK. All right.
ROBERT: Now's not the right time. I appreciate your time. Thank you for everything.
ARTER: No problem.
WILLIAM: I show up to class every day.
ROBERT: So everybody's lying. Every one of these teachers is lying.
WILLIAM: I didn't say they was lying. I'm just not there in the class, I'm downstairs.
ROBERT: It doesn't matter. You don't need to be downstairs, you need to be in your class. You're here to come to class.
MARY: Where were you?
WILLIAM: For the internship. I wasn't cutting out of class.
ROBERT: That is cutting out of class.
ROBERT: If you're not in the room, you're not in the class. That's it.
WILLIAM: You act like I'm cutting out…
MARY: You have answers for everything.
WILLIAM: But I don't want you thinking the wrong thing about me.
ROBERT: If you show up for class you're not doing the work anyway, so what's the difference?
MARY: Because you're wasting your time here then.
ROBERT: I got three other kids at home.
KRULWICH: What Robert hasn't said but all three of them know is that if William doesn't work harder, he may no longer be welcome at his cousins' home. The house, the school, everything's at stake.
WILLIAM: It's no joke now. Now it's, I have to pass, which is, that was my plan before, this was the final cycle and I have to pass.
KRULWICH: And then, almost immediately, word reaches Eileen that he's failing several courses…
HUNTER: I saw the record, the printed out record, that his grades were too low.
KRULWICH: So what's the, what's the house rule? You can't take an internship?
HUNTER: You not supposed to be taking an internship if you're not doing well. He told me he was doing well, he said he was doing fine.
KRULWICH: Oh brother…
HUNTER: The truth is a little different. So I met with the grade advisor.
KRULWICH: What are you thinking?
HUNTER: I was concerned. When I saw those grades, I said, "Oh my goodness. Maybe we have to stop this."
KRULWICH: In spite of the fact that you've written the letter of recommendation? That you've made the calls? That you've done the research that you've done all this? Don't you have an investment? In it happening?
HUNTER: No. because I asked the question, what's important here? What's important here? That this young man graduate high school, not that he get this internship.
HUNTER: Right? So I asked the experts.
KRULWICH: Experts and teachers and Robert and Mary and a social worker, Claudia.
It is decided to give William a chance. For two months, he will be allowed to be a paid assistant at the acting school but his grades must go up.
AHUMADA: We know the commitment is there, so, so I'm asking everybody to take a deep breath and, you know, we're working together, we're going to meet, right? So we're going to set a plan, right? So there's no, no surprises for anybody, right? Right?
ROBERT: Let's hope not.
MARY: Hope so.
KRULWICH: So, because his home situation is so fragile, the school decides to go an extra mile. They do a lot of this.
So much so, I asked the head of the Student Life Center, Greg Cohen, "If you're willing to do this for William, remember, you got another 800 kids here. 800."
KRULWICH: Why didn't you say, who are you, 800 people that you would expect, or even think that you would get this kind of service?
COHEN: Didn't occur to me to ask that question. Here I'm talking and I remember one of the young women I'm talking to has a daughter. Her day job is working for the ferry service that takes people to the Statue of Liberty. She finishes up at the Ferry or the concession stand wherever she was, comes here at 5:00, goes to school at 11:00, goes to the Bronx.
KRULWICH: Goes to school until 11 p.m.
COHEN: Until 11 PM. Goes to the Bronx to the aunt who takes care of her daughter. Picks up her daughter and then takes her to her apartment in Queens.
KRULWICH: When does she have to be back at work the next day?
COHEN: 8:00 or something. So she's getting home 2:30 or something like that. Now I'm going to say to her, "What makes you think you deserve some help finding child care or health care for your child?" She's getting a diploma, she's working, she's the model. It wouldn't occur to me. All that occurs to me is to say, "You're phenomenal! What can I do to help you in your quest?" Same thing Howard asked on day one when he was creating the school.
KRULWICH: When you open up the newspaper and you find the President of the United States saying, "Okay, here's the deal. We want to test everybody and get them to a certain point. So you just get there. And if we know that we can graduate people and the diplomas make sense then we know we have left no child behind." What are you thinking?
COHEN: It should be so easy.
KRULWICH: You mean you have to add a lot in order to do that?
COHEN: Well sure. 'Cause this is the High School for all of the children left behind.
KRULWICH: And for the moment anyway, that will include William Vasquez.
HUNTER: So he has till the end of June to be in this internship and if he can bring up his marks he'll be extended to the end of August. So it's a carrot.
KRULWICH: Interesting. Do you think it'll work?
HUNTER: It may.
KRULWICH: But what are the odds? These kids William, and Zhaolin, and Yusuf, and Rilda are under enormous pressure. Some of them will win. But some of them, as you are about to see, will self destruct.