The Education of Omarina

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Frank Koughan & Mary Robertson


Mary Robertson

NARRATOR: This is the story of six years in a life, and an attempt to stem the dropout crisis in America. When we first met Omarina Cabrera, she was a middle school student in the Bronx, and she had been struggling.

OMARINA CABRERA: Sixth grade was a hard year because me and my mom got evicted. I felt shattered. That was the home that I had for my whole life. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, and that period of not knowing wasn’t something that I felt comfortable with. I felt this inkling in me that I would never want my children or anyone else to experience this.

NARRATOR: Shuffled between relatives’ apartments, some without even electricity, Omarina suffered another loss.

OMARINA CABRERA: When I was really young, my father walked out, for whatever reason. I finally got in touch with him. Just before we were about to talk and I was about to go see him, he had gotten a stroke. So I see my father for the first time, and it was in a casket.

NARRATOR: With her home life in chaos, Omarina’s school life began to suffer. She was showing up late or not at all, starting down a path that so many other young people take. Every year, hundreds of thousands of students fail to finish high school.

ROBERT BALFANZ, Johns Hopkins University: Even kids in the most dire circumstances really want a future. They just need to have a path to it.

NARRATOR: Robert Balfanz, one of the nation’s top education researchers, had been searching for that path for 15 years by studying kids who were dropping out of high school. Then he realized that the key moment when kids begin to go down the wrong path was actually in middle school.

ROBERT BALFANZ: If in the middle grades, you’ve develop habits of not coming to school regularly, of getting in trouble or failing your courses, you bring that with you to high school.

NARRATOR: What he discovered was that if a 6th grade child in a high-poverty school is absent more than 20 percent of the time, or fails math or English or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, there is a 75 percent chance that they will drop out of high school unless there is decisive intervention.

ROBERT BALFANZ: It may seem far less than rocket science, but it’s something that, in fact, schools by and large have not paid attention to.

NARRATOR: But Omarina’s school, Middle School 244, did. It had recently implemented a program, based on Balfanz’s research, designed to catch faltering students like her. Every week, statistics are collected and reviewed by a team of counselors and teachers, including the principal, Dolores Peterson.

DOLORES PETERSON: Let’s go to 802, Omarina. How is Omarina doing?

NARRATOR: They would flag the students most in need.

COUNSELOR: Her mother’s not even in the United States right now. They were in a shelter not that long ago, then they were evicted. I took her home one day, and it’s on the other side of the world, you can say.

DOLORES PETERSON: I can’t tell you how much I worry every time she leaves this building.

COUNSELOR: When she leaves this building, you know, she’s on her own.

NARRATOR: In cases like Omarina’s, they’d organize an intervention. Catherine Miller was Omarina’s homeroom teacher.

CATHERINE MILLER, Omarina’s Middle School Teacher: So once Omarina was identified, it was imperative on my part as the homeroom teacher, in consultation with the guidance counselor, to discuss why she was coming in late so many times.

OMARINA CABRERA: They came to me and they asked me, “What’s wrong? You’ve been late a lot. Something has to be wrong.” And that’s when I told Ms. Miller that I was evicted.

CATHERINE MILLER: Your mother needs to feel safe, or she needs to feel good about where you are, as do you. And the best we can do right now is—

We can compile thousands of numbers about who’s failing this or who’s passing that, but if there’s no response to that data, it’s all for naught.

NARRATOR: It became clear that a chaotic home life was the source of Omarina’s problems at school and she needed targeted support. The team helped her figure out routes to school from ever-changing addresses, got her a bus pass and books.

ROBERT BALFANZ: It’s that sense of shepherding is what the kids need, to know that an adult not only cares, but the adult can actually help them.

DOLORES PETERSON: How’s it going at home?

OMARINA CABRERA: I think it’s calmer than before.

DOLORES PETERSON: And your brother?

OMARINA CABRERA: I had a lot of different things going on. I had my brother, who was so smart and he was just like— he’s my twin. My brother began to be exposed to a lot of the things that were out there, and not only him, but a lot of us were. Not a lot of kids make the right choice, and that’s happened a lot of times in the Bronx for a lot of people.

NARRATOR: In the summer after 6th grade, Omarina’s twin, Omarlin, started hanging out on the streets and getting in trouble. His mother had him moved to another school, thinking he’d be safer in a different neighborhood. But when we met him at the end of 8th grade, Omarlin was rarely attending school and his high school plans were uncertain.

OMARLIN CABRERA: Where am I going to go to high school? I don’t know. I haven’t gotten a letter yet of acceptance.

OMARINA CABRERA: The fact that he got involved with the streets and he just began slipping off the mountain, slipping off, slipping off, slipping off. And it’s really sad.

Without everybody, that’s what I would be. The fact that I go on to high school, that wouldn’t matter to me. “I can get my GED later.” That’s what I would say.

NARRATOR: Soon Omarina was achieving near perfect grades and attendance. Her teachers encouraged her to apply to competitive prep schools beyond New York City.

CATHERINE MILLER: I thought that was your best essay. Read it to me. I love it.

OMARINA CABRERA: “Typically, young adults look upon a political figure or someone in their life for guidance and support. I, on the other hand, seem to find this inspiration within a black and white street sign. Imprinted on the sign are the words ‘One Way.’ It taunts me with the inevitable reminder that coming in is not the obstacle, but making it out.”

NARRATOR: When the acceptance letters began coming in, they included a full scholarship to Brooks, an exclusive private boarding school in Massachusetts.

DOLORES PETERSON: So what did you decide? Which school did you choose?

OMARINA CABRERA: After giving it a lot of thought, I went with Brooks.

DOLORES PETERSON: So are you excited?

OMARINA CABRERA: Yeah. I’m excited!

DOLORES PETERSON: I know I am. How does it feel, Ms. Miller?

CATHERINE MILLER: It’s very humbling, and I’m incredibly proud of your accomplishments.

OMARINA CABRERA: Oh, Ms. Miller, you’re going to make me cry! Oh, come here!

NARRATOR: We checked in on Omarina halfway through her sophomore year at The Brooks School.

North Andover, MA

OMARINA CABRERA: I remember first getting here, I was nervous that I was way too different to fit in.

PRIEST: We pray for our families—

OMARINA CABRERA: A lot of kids here are very wealthy and their parents are very important people. I go back to an apartment in the middle of the Bronx.

PRIEST: And we pray for our school, that we may always be a home for innocence and truth.

OMARINA CABRERA: There’s times when you notice subtle comments because people haven’t been exposed to certain things. I think they are genuinely curious, and they genuinely want to know how I do my hair in the morning, or do I think in Spanish, or I don’t know, was I born here?

NARRATOR: In this new environment, the pressure on Omarina wasn’t just social. In the beginning, she says, she struggled to keep up in class.

TEACHER: 1, 1 equals 3— look at the last digit—

OMARINA CABRERA: I remember getting my first quiz back and almost throwing up because I had a 16 percent. And I think that was the moment when I realized, yeah, I’m not getting by if I don’t work really, really, really hard.

During those times when, you know, it feels like a little bit too much, I feel like I do have a strong faculty to support me, and Ms. Miller, who is always with me regardless of where I am.

CATHERINE MILLER: [via video link] Good morning. What classes do you have this morning?

OMARINA CABRERA: I have algebra 2, and then I have a chem test.

CATHERINE MILLER: I felt like it was really imperative to keep very constant contact—

OMARINA CABRERA: OK. Bye, Ms. Miller. Love you!

CATHERINE MILLER: —just to make sure that the adjustment is going well, but also knowing that, you know, many people rooting for her to be successful here in the Bronx.

TEACHER: So what if I asked you to graph this thing that’s changing over time?

OMARINA CABRERA: Well, zero is there, so it would go away from it and it would be negative.

I caught up and I got good mid-term grades. I’m excited about that. And I’m proud. My sophomore year— now, this is a good year. You’re kind of just floating. I just need to keep looking ahead and just keep going, keep moving a step at a time.

NARRATOR: But just as Omarina was getting on track at Brooks, she received a disturbing call.

OMARINA CABRERA: It was a Tuesday morning. I couldn’t ignore the feeling that I had in my stomach.

STUDENT: Why are we so powerless to save the people we love?

NARRATOR: She found out her twin brother Omarlin had been shot.

OMARINA CABRERA: I immediately thought, “Is he dead? Just tell me if he’s dead.”

2nd STUDENT: I want to tell you why I did it.

NARRATOR: The police said the shooter fled the scene. Omarlin survived.

OMARINA CABRERA: I was scared and sad and disappointed and worried, but I can’t show that to him because he doesn’t need that. He needs someone there to be strong for him.

NARRATOR: With their mother frequently not at home, Omarina was making regular trips to the Bronx, juggling the demands of her school work and her sense of responsibility to her brother.

OMARINA CABRERA: Hey! Where were you?

I tried very hard not to ever cry in front of him. I hope he does realize that I do care and— and that’s why I do the things I do, and that’s why I always nag him.

So you get transferred, or are you still in the process? What’s going to happen with that?

OMARLIN CABRERA: I don’t know. I’m just waiting.

OMARINA CABRERA: Oh. It’s not going to take long, right?


NARRATOR: Omarlin was reluctant to talk about what was going on in his life, or about the bullet that could have ended it.

OMARLIN CABRERA: It came from this way into my arms, and then under my upper ribs on the left side, close to my heart. I don’t know. I could have died, so I thank God that I’m not dead and I can still be here. So I just have fun. I know she’s going to have a bright future, too, because she goes to school. She got her scholarship. So that’s good.

I don’t know. I have to— to have a good life and a good job and kids and be married. That’s it.

NARRATOR: So while Omarina was finishing her sophomore year at Brooks, Omarlin, at age 16, was still in the 9th grade. At the time of filming, he had only shown up for school five times all year. In the coming months, he would be arrested for carrying a knife and for possession of marijuana.

OMARINA CABRERA: I handle stress in different ways. When I get to Brooks, I use it as almost my getaway. I can’t just think and think and think and think about all the things that are going wrong. I just think of all the things that might be going right, you know?

NARRATOR: We returned to Brooks two years later, after a difficult junior year that would determine where, or even if, she would go to college.

North Andover, MA

LATIN TEACHER: What is oportet? Remember from Latin 20, you had that list of all impersonal verbs?

OMARINA CABRERA: An indirect statement.

LATIN TEACHER: Indirect statement.

OMARINA CABRERA: In the beginning, I definitely thought I was going to have one of the best years, but junior year ended up being one of the hardest years of my life. I think the clouds started gathering when we found out that Omarlin was going to be having a baby. And I just remember thinking, like, “What did you do?”

I just thought back to, like, our childhood and how much our parents, you know, affected the trajectory of our lives. And I just— I just feared that he might not be able to physically be there because he’s in a frenzy to provide for her. And my fears came true when he was arrested.

NARRATOR: Omarlin pled guilty to attempted robbery in the first degree and was sent to Rikers Island to await sentencing.

OMARINA CABRERA: I knew that my other half, my brother, the person that I love most in this world, was going through something so terrible that I could never even imagine.

TEACHER: All right, so what is the anti-derivative of 9?

OMARINA CABRERA: All of this anxiety, you know, caused me to lose focus in school.

TEACHER: We’re going to get back to finding the volume of the cylinder, but we’re going to do it through—

OMARINA CABRERA: Junior year’s important because those are the grades that are sent out to colleges. I was, like, having panic attacks just thinking about like, wow, my grades aren’t what they’re supposed to be.

Getting up out of bed was so difficult. Just that day felt like too much for me.

CATHERINE MILLER: I couldn’t fathom the idea that this amazing young lady who had overcome so many things and is on the precipice of moving on to the next stage of her life, and that might all be gone. I knew that an intervention was absolutely necessary, so I drove up to Brooks.

OMARINA CABRERA: I just stopped because I saw Ms. Miller with her, “I’m going to kill you” eyes. [laughs] She’d always say, like, “All right, there’s all these things you can’t control, but what are the things that are bothering you right now that we can fix?”

She got me this poster for my wall, more frames to put pictures of, you know, the people that I love. Just that feeling that I had, you know, people to catch me whenever I did fall just gave me the strength to keep moving forward step by step, step by step.

NARRATOR: While all this was going on, Omarina, with the help of Ms. Miller and the staff at Brooks, was also applying to colleges. The only way she could afford to go was with a generous financial aid package. Her first choice was George Washington University

OMARINA CABRERA: I was scared because the ending of my junior year wasn’t what I wanted it to be in terms of academics.

CATHERINE MILLER: There was a possibility that the grades were still going to overshadow her accomplishments, which was so disheartening to think about. And I wasn’t sure what we were going to do if she didn’t have any financial aid.

Bronx, NY

NARRATOR: The answer came when she was home for December break.



OMARINA CABRERA: How are you? You look so pretty.

CATHERINE MILLER: Thank you. So do you.

NARRATOR: She waited for the news at her old middle school.

OMARINA CABRERA: I’m just a big bunch of nerves right now. Anything can happen, basically.

CATHERINE MILLER: The email comes at 5:00?



OMARINA CABRERA: I got an email yesterday saying that they’re going to email it to me at 6:00. [laughter] OK, y’all are taking too long for this. Like, I need to know. It’s been nine minutes! [screams]


OMARINA CABRERA: Oh, my God! I got in! Oh, my God! Yes! And the money— I don’t know. I don’t know. I think they might send in the money later. I’ll cry if I get full finan— like, cry real tears. I don’t cry.

CATHERINE MILLER: So I just asked if we can see a snapshot of the financial aid letter. Oh, wait, wait, wait! He just emailed me back.

OMARINA CABRERA: What did he say?

CATHERINE MILLER: “I can tell you that is— it is an extremely generous package”—


CATHERINE MILLER: —“and she should have no issues making it work next year and beyond”! [laughs]


CATHERINE MILLER: OK, now I feel better. Now I feel better. [laughs] I feel better. [laughs] It’s OK! Oh, thank God. [laughs] It’s OK.

TEACHER: You made it!

TEACHER: [inaudible] this, right? This is what you were working for.


TEACHER: Yeah. You made it.


TEACHER: You made it. You made it.

OMARINA CABRERA: OK. Oh, God, I don’t ever cry, but this— this is cry-worthy. Oh, my God, thank you so much!

ROBERT BALFANZ, Johns Hopkins University: Lives in poverty are fragile. You could be doing great one week one year, and then something else hits, and if you don’t have support, you can still crumble.

Middle school intervention is not sufficient in itself, but it’s essential that it starts there. And we can see that in these two kids’ life trajectories. Although Omarina got some special advantages, you don’t need the boarding school. You need a decent high school. Two to three adults will get you all the way through high school graduation and on a path to post-secondary.

Her brother tragically represents the other side of the story. If we don’t solve the problem or change the behavior that’s leading a 6th grader to miss a month of school, or fail math and English, it doesn’t self-correct. In fact, we clearly see it gets worse.

NARRATOR: Around the same time that Omarina was accepted to George Washington, Omarlin was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

OMARINA CABRERA: One of the people who were testifying against him, in their report, they said that Omarlin had told them, like, “I’m sorry that I’m doing this. I’m doing this for my daughter.” He doesn’t get to see a big portion of her early years, and his daughter’s growing up pretty fast.

It just really, really messes with me, like, knowing that I’m moving on to a good part of my life. You know, I’m graduating high school. I’ve always felt like he’s lagging behind me, and I— you know, I don’t know how to get him on track. But this is something different in the sense that this is the rest of our lives. This is no longer, you know, school. This is his life.

No one in my immediate family has graduated high school and gone to college. However, I believe I will be the first one and they will be excited and thrilled and they’ll be proud of what I’ve become.

TEACHER: To be that full of profound perspective and wisdom at this stage in her life leaves me believing that are no limits to what she might do for, and share with, the world. It is my privilege to present the Trustee’s Prize to Omarina Cabrera. [applause, cheers]

Congratulations to the Class of 2016.

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