Harlem resident Onilda Acosta wants the very best for her children. She has three: Two boys, Quishaun, 15, and Dijonne, 11, and a 7-year-old daughter, SaintAngel. Acosta was born in Belize and emigrated to the United States as a child. Now, she lives in a three-bedroom apartment on West 140th St, just off Malcolm X Boulevard— across the street from a Key Food grocery store and around the corner from an NYPD watchtower, a permanent presence in the embattled neighborhood.
Like the area, life in Acosta's home – located within the boundaries of the Harlem Children’s Zone – has its rough patches. Her apartment had been without heat for six years until a judge's recent ruling forced her landlord to deliver working heaters, as well as restore walls demolished by construction and begin a long-overdue renovation of a lead-contaminated kitchen. She says she has not slept in her bedroom in over a year, because mold seeping through from the exterior made the room uninhabitable. But the living area is cozy and inviting, filled with family mementoes, DVDs and a television mounted to a wall.
All three kids have been students at the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy schools. Dijonne and SaintAngel are still enrolled, in the middle and elementary schools, respectively. Quishaun left after struggles with his teachers. “He had a problem with his mouth and his attitude,” said Acosta, brushing a streak of hot-pink hair out of her eyes. “It was embarrassing, how he talked to his teachers. I had to back-slap him.”
Quishaun moved to his dad's apartment and enrolled at the Manhattan School for Career Development, an alternative school run by the school system's special education district. But according to his mom, he rarely goes—and when he does, he rarely stays the day. Now, the family is looking for boarding-school alternatives for Quishaun. “He's out of order,” says his mom, explaining that the boy is struggling with a lot, including the shooting deaths of five friends—some shot by accident, at a block party or a dance, and others caught up in the gunplay on nearby Seventh Avenue.
“The way he's going, he's going to go to jail one day or he's going to get killed,” Acosta says, describing a neighbor who neglected to get help for own child until “he was out there covered with the white sheet.”
“I'm not going to wait for that,” she vows. “I don't even have the money to bury him.”
Acosta, 46, works part-time cleaning houses but had to leave a recent job in retail to attend housing-court dates, permit her landlord's workers access to her apartment and manage Quishaun's school transition. She receives welfare and housing support for her family.
The Promise Academy schools weren't an option when Quishaun began kindergarten, but Dijonne was part of the charter school's first class, after Acosta put in an application and his name was called in the lottery. Once Dijonne was accepted, Quishaun was invited to enroll in the new middle school—and when SaintAngel was old enough for school, she, too, enrolled there.
“They love their school,” says Acosta, who adds that the kids rarely want to miss the after-school activities like hip-hop, theater, dance, karate and tennis. When she says she'll pick them up at 4:30, they ask to stay until 5; if she says 5, they ask for 6. SaintAngel asked one teacher if she could stay until 8—which would mean a 12-hour day, for both teacher and child. “Sometimes they never want to come home, they love that school so much!” their mother relates.
The teachers make the difference, says Acosta, who credits their dedication and commitment to the children. As a school volunteer, she's seen teachers quit and leave the school in tears. Those who stay fight hard for the kids' success, she says. They believe in the children. “These teachers are more there for the kids than they are for the money,” says Acosta.
Acosta's parents modeled high educational standards for her: Her father was among the first Belizeans to win a scholarship to study in Canada, and at 47, Acosta's mother earned her General Equivalency Diploma and went on to nursing school. But Acosta doesn't yet have a high-school diploma. “When I was younger, I lived the fast life, went out clubbing and such, then boom, I got pregnant,” causing studies to take a back seat. She says she aims to earn her equivalency once family affairs are more settled.
Dijonne has blossomed into an avid reader and an excellent student, earning high scores on his state tests. Acosta thinks Dijonne just might have inherited his grandfather's aptitude for math; Dionne seems to agree, often saying, “I got my Grandpa's brain.” Acosta says he'll be an inventor or a scientist one day.
Acosta's father gave gifts to her and her siblings for high grades or sports prizes. “My Dad believed you don't get anything for free,” Acosta recalls. “You earn it.” The Promise Academy takes the same approach. Last year, the family enjoyed three days and nights in Disney World, thanks to Dijonne's high marks. “For the kids who made the bull's-eyes— all fours— they get to go to Disney World,” said Acosta. She says the sixth-graders went to Paris and the eighth-graders took a cruise to Ecuador, because “they're studying the rainforest.”
SaintAngel has her sights set on testing high, too, so she can take her family on another trip. In the meantime, a play she wrote was produced in the HCZ after-school puppetry workshop.
“She read some story to me. I overlooked it, I was cleaning,” Acosta said with a smile. But SaintAngel's after-school teachers discovered the child's project and made sure it was performed for the whole school— and that the first-grader won a drama award for her creative efforts.
“They have sponsors, they have money, and they're using it on the kids,” Acosta says. The Harlem Children's Zone has been helpful to her as well, with occasional gift certificates to Old Navy and Toys R Us, and making sure “all the kids got gifts” at Christmas time.
“They're in a perfect school. They're doing excellent,” says Acosta, of her two younger children. Even big-brother Quishaun realizes the opportunity he once had. She says that during a recent visit, he told her: “'I should have never let you get me out of Promise Academy.'”