Watch CBS News

Washington Heights community school inspires individuality

Washington Heights nonprofit uses personalized approach for students
Washington Heights nonprofit uses personalized approach for students 02:04

NEW YORK - As the Community League of the Heights celebrates its 70th year of serving the Washington Heights neighborhood, the nonprofit is also preparing for a new school year. The Community Health Academy of the Heights achieved its highest graduation rate ever in 2022, using a personalized approach.

Since 2005, CHAH has catered its curriculum towards public health and impact. Some recent graduates, like Josseline Altamirano, have a personal purpose to pursue these fields.

"I'm going to be following my mom's steps because she's a doctor," Altamirano said.

The incoming Hunter College student hopes to help people as a nurse. But Altamirano's mother is only licensed to practice medicine in Ecuador, keeping her from the front lines of the pandemic. She has been working in a restaurant since bringing her family to the United States.

"It was hard because you know that's like her calling," Altamirano said. "She likes to help people, and yeah, that was hard seeing people dying."

Fellow alum Angelia Ozuna's father faced an even greater COVID challenge.

"He ended up getting hospitalized and put in a coma for four months, which was very hard for my family," Ozuna said.

Ozuna's mother shifted her caretaking career to her own household, inspiring the City College freshman to help her community as a doctor. A school counselor kept her focused on her future.

"One time we were on a Zoom meeting and he was like, I know it's hard, but you have to turn your camera on like, let me see you," Ozuna admitted. "We have to be face to face."

The Academy goes beyond student support, using its CLOTH resources to help parents provide food, housing and more.

"The connections and the bonds we form with the families and the students is instrumental," said Principal David Falciani. "And it really helped us keep our students tethered and connected to the school when they weren't in front of us."

Despite pandemic setbacks, this year the school boasted a 95 percent graduation rate, the highest in its history.

Raymond Medina found robotics internships through counselors, affording him the experience to apply for and win a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Wisconsin to study mechanical engineering.

"He was like, you should go try and get it, because I always knew I wanted to go out of state and experience more," Medina said of his conversation with a counselor.

New Fashion Institute of Technology student Chris Liriano won graphic design and photography competitions with the new skills he learned after transferring to the school in tenth grade.

"I was kind of lost," Liriano remembered. "But after I got here, I kind of got put in like my own little path. And they left me. They let me go down that path while also helping me."

Graduation day celebrated the perseverance of their mascot, the Phoenix. Ozuna's dad made sure he did not miss it.

"He was the loudest one yelling and the loudest whistler you could ever imagine," said Ozuna.

Each of these graduates already made their families proud.

The Community Health Academy of the Heights is open to approximately 650 6th to 12th grade students in the neighborhood. The school year begins Sept. 8.

Have a story idea or tip in Harlem? Email Jessi by CLICKING HERE.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.