February 04, 2005

Students stand up to the neighborhood. School run by nuns prepares girls for a better future

ASBURY PARK - Sister Marge Scarpone recalls the day that her students at Sisters Academy placed red carnations in the weave of the chain-link fence that surrounds the school in Asbury Park.

"On the stem of each flower, we placed the name of someone we knew who was affected by drug or alcohol abuse or who had died from it," Sister Scarpone said.

But when she arrived at the all-girls school on Springwood Avenue the next day, the nun found the flowers scattered on the ground.

"I was so angry," the nun said, her round, friendly face clenching with the memory. "I asked a couple of the students to help me pick up the flowers and place them back in the fence."

But the students resisted, she said, concerned that the flowers would only meet the same fate again.

"I looked at the girls, and I said, `Are we going to let this neighborhood beat us?'"

Without answering, five girls immediately walked outside and started picking up the flowers and placing them back in the fence, she said.

"No, sir," Sister Scarpone said with her own measure of defiance, "we are NOT going to let the neighborhood beat us."

But the neighborhood outside the brick walls, locked doors and chain-link fence of Sisters Academy is a formidable opponent, a place where drug dealing is routine, and assaults, shootings and random acts of violence are common.

"Last spring (2003), there was a body lying in the street in front of a teacher's car," Scarpone said. "Some guys picked up the body and carried it into the red crackhouse across the street."

Despite scenes like this, Sisters Academy has managed to beat the neighborhood for five years now and, in the process, beat the odds. The school for girls in fifth through eighth grades, run by the Sisters of Mercy under the auspices of the Mercy Center, has graduated 40 students, most of whom come from the neighborhood and have challenges beyond the classroom.

"Between AIDS, drugs, violence and imprisonment in the family ... it would break your heart what these girls have to deal with," said Sister Scarpone, who teaches at the school. "Some girls have to avoid streets where there is drug dealing just to get to school."

But within the protective walls of the school, the girls thrive. The first graduating class of 11 are now seniors in high school, and of those, three have been inducted into the National Honor Society in their first semester of eligibility, Sister Scarpone said. Of the last graduating class of 13, two now attend Allied Health and Science High School in Neptune, a unit of the Monmouth County Vocational School District that prepares students for careers in the medical sciences; one student attends Communications High School in Wall, another vo-tech school that specializes in communication careers; four attend Academy Charter High School in South Belmar; two are at Red Bank Catholic High School; one is at St. Rose High School in Belmar; and four attend Asbury Park High School.

Current eighth-graders Shardanae Johnson, 13, and Adarra Davis, 14, both credit the school for opening educational horizons.

"I hope to attend the Peddie School in Hightstown after I graduate here," said Davis, of Asbury Park. "If it wasn't for this school, I never would have heard of Peddie."

Johnson, of Neptune, who plans to apply to Academy Charter High School, St. Rose and Red Bank Catholic, agreed that Sisters Academy has made a big difference in her life.

"This school has challenged me," she said, adding that she has friends who attend public school who "aren't doing the complicated stuff (in class) that we are."

And though the goal of the school is to prepare the students for a life beyond the neighborhood, Sister Scarpone said there is another objective.

"Our great hope is that, when the girls achieve whatever it is they achieve, they return to the community to give back to this neighborhood," she said. "That's the kind of redevelopment we'd like to see. From inside, not outside."

January 25, 2005 Copyright (c) Asbury Park Press. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission .

Back to All News