They all started in the same kindergarten class at Harlem's P.S. 36 but have taken different paths in 13 years of navigating the New York City schools. Here's a look at where they've been and where they are now. (Five out of the 23 students declined to be interviewed or could not be located.)
Middle Row (From l.): 8. Lance Patterson * 9. Kelvin Jones * 10. Danique Love-Billy * 11. Alexis Ann Smith * 12. Heather Miximina Ortiz * 13. Shamara Frederick * 14. Estella Ortiz * 15. Paul Lewis * 16. Kamal Ibrahim
- Day 1: Young & Restless
- Day 2: One class, many journeys
- Day 2: Proud parents laud grads
- Day 2: Dropout finds tough going
- Day 3: Parents work the system
- Day 3: Tears, memories flow at reunion
- Day 3: '...you hope they will succeed'
The year is 1994, and the kids gazing out at the camera for their annual class photo have just entered the New York City public schools.
As the girls smile broadly and some of the boys try to look tough, they're captured at a time in their lives when the future seems so far away.
But in the 13 years that followed, the 23 kids who had the good fortune to test into the gifted kindergarten at Harlem's Public School 36 would see their class splintered by adversity and fate.
One of the girls would grieve the murders of both her parents. One of the boys would be arrested three times and spend a week on Rikers Island. One would get involved in a gang. Another would attend a city high school so violent she'd see four knifefights in four years.
Their very personal stories illuminate a sprawling public school system where some children find ways to flourish but many become lost.
Nearly 60% of black and Latino New York City public school students don't earn a diploma after four years of high school. But somehow, most of the youngsters who donned navy blue uniforms with little red ties to pose with teacher Rhonda Harris would beat the odds.
"It's a very big struggle, very big, trying to give them a good education, trying to have them stay out of trouble," said Denise Ortiz, a mother of six whose daughter Estrella was in that class.
The Daily News spent two months tracking down the children of Room 206, finding 21 of the 23.
Eleven report they're graduating this month from New York City public schools, two from city Catholic schools and three from public schools in other cities.
Two are still enrolled and working toward diplomas, and three have drifted away from the daily grind of education, unsure if they'll find their way back.
Kelvin Jones, who dropped out last year, is one of the lost.
"Once you leave, you're going to get too used to this outside life, sleeping all day, doing what you're doing," he said. "You ain't ready to go back to school."
Mrs. Harris' class
The children of Room 206 could be from any public school.
The News chose them by chance, starting with a top Harlem high school, Frederick Douglass Academy, and asking to meet with top seniors. That led us to Kamal Ibrahim, a standout who plans to major in physics at Carnegie Mellon University. He gave us the name of Mrs. Harris, his kindergarten teacher. She led us to her 1994 class.
We found Kamal's classmates by word of mouth, public records and the Internet. Most agreed to tell their stories. Three refused.
They made different choices along the way, but all of them started in the same place: a well-regarded school carved into a rocky bluff at 123rd St. and Amsterdam Ave., across from the Grant public houses.
The year the students of Room 206 started kindergarten, budget cuts meant students were crowded together in aging classrooms.
Schools in poor neighborhoods were staffed with high numbers of uncertified teachers, and a lawsuit filed the previous year alleged that the average guidance counselor had to work with 700 kids.
These youngsters were off to a good start at PS 36, a K-2 school, but there were problems ahead.
Some of their families left town in search of better schools and safer streets. Some scraped
together pennies for Catholic school tuition. Others used fake addresses or pulled strings to navigate a public school system that's as much a tale of inequality as the city itself.
In third grade, Jermaine Jackson enrolled at Harlem's PS 144, which was so chaotic the Board of Ed shut it down in 2001. In a crowded class there in 1997, he became distracted — and lazy, he said. He fell behind and had to repeat the third grade.
"It's not really their fault because I didn't try, either," he said.
Artavia Jarvis says she was hit by a teacher in the fourth grade at Harlem's PS 125. Her parents promptly enrolled her in parochial school, saying they'd rather remain in public housing so they could afford her tuition.
Artavia doesn't think she would have graduated from public school. "I would have continued being bad," she said.
Other kids fell off track in middle school or high school, including Morgan Hill, whose mother moved her to New Jersey in ninth grade.
"I miss New York and that's where I want to go back to, but I think this was the time that I should have gone away," she said.
But Room 206 also produced public school success stories like Unique Covington, whose grades and writing skills got her into a small, creative sixth through 12th grade school in lower Manhattan called the Institute for Collaborative Education.
Her middle school classes had 17 students, enabling her to build close relationships with teachers. In high school, instead of exams, she wrote up to 20-page research papers and presented them to panels of teachers and students.
Bound for the University of Hartford in the fall, she credits her success to great schools, an involved mother and herself.
And then there's Letricia Linton, who was 3 when she witnessed her mother's murder and 10 when her father was shot in the head by a mugger.
She was raised by a powerhouse of a grandmother who pushed her to succeed and to draw on her past for strength.
Tragedy "made me want to do more with my life because I see how short life is," she said.
Graduating Thursday from Frederick Douglass, Letricia knew she'd be successful because she had the right ingredients.
"You have to have family support," she said. "You have to have a good relationship with teachers. You have to have motivation within yourself. ...
"And you have to have hope."
Highlights of the tumultuous years since the children of Room 206 started kindergarten:
- First day of school, Sept. 10, 1994: Kindergartners arrive at Public School 36 amid systemwide budget cuts and overcrowded classes. Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been sworn in eight months earlier, vowing to lower crime and improve education. There were nearly 1,600 homicides that year, staggering when compared with the 596 murders in 2006.
- End of kindergarten, June 1995: Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortines, a life-long educator who had served in the Clinton administration, resigns.
- First grade, October 1995: Veteran educator Rudy Crew becomes chancellor, calling it the "crown jewel" of his career.
- Fourth grade, spring 1999: City students take statewide, standards-based tests for the first time, ushering in new era in assessments. Fourth-graders had passing rate of 49.6% on math exam and 32.7% on reading exam.
- Fifth grade, December 1999: Board of Ed votes not to renew Crew's contract after he lost Giuliani's support by opposing experimental voucher program.
- Fifth grade, May 2000: Corporate lawyer Harold Levy becomes schools chancellor.
- Seventh grade, Sept. 11, 2001: World Trade Center attacks.
- Seventh grade, January 2002: Michael Bloomberg sworn in as mayor, continues Giuliani's push for mayoral control over schools. In the months to come, he eliminates central Board of Ed and disbands the 32 community school boards.
- Summer before eighth grade, June 2002: Faced with city's dismal performance on state tests, Albany turns over control of schools to mayor. Joel Klein, a lawyer who had served in the Clinton administration and U.S. Justice Department, becomes chancellor amid massive reorganization.