In Tim Lisante’s first year as an assistant principal at a school for youth on the prison complex Rikers Island 30 years ago, he met a student with four strikes against her. She had a learning disability, substance abuse problem, no permanent home in the city—and she was pregnant.
Some might have seen a lost cause. Lisante saw a student in crisis.
Three decades later, Lisante is the superintendent of New York City’s District 79, which consists of over 14,000 students who have fallen behind in high school; been involved in the criminal-justice system; or who have special needs such as drug treatment, job training, or child care.
Years ago, the district used to include transfer schools, which serve over-age and under-credited students, and other small high schools. Now it is a network of programs for students learning outside of traditional school settings.
Lisante said he is especially focused on the formerly incarcerated youth he first saw when he started as assistant principal—because they often need the most help.
New York has come under scrutiny for how it treats youth in the criminal-justice system. It is one of two states nationwide that still prosecutes all youth as adults when they turn 16, though legislators are engaged in a battle this year to change that. A 2014 report by the former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara found a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the adolescent facilities on Rikers Island, and the city proposed a plan to move 16- and 17-year olds from the island to a facility in the Bronx.