PLEASANTVILLE — Latrell Townsend said students in the school district know when something is amiss, so he wasn’t surprised when students and staff packed a cafeteria last spring to tell the Board of Education not to transfer his dad.
“Students notice when the staff are doing positive things for the student body,” he said.
Latrell’s father is Stephen Townsend, the district’s athletic director, whom school officials proposed moving into a new position in the department of curriculum. The school board decided against the action after an outpouring of support from students and staff.
This wasn’t the first or the last controversy for the district.
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For 11 years, the Pleasantville school district has been under the watchful eye of a state fiscal monitor. The district has dealt with lawsuits between feuding members of its staff, a union without a contract for two years and, most recently, a high school principal charged with possessing child pornography.
But behind the headlines are more than 3,500 students — 761 in the high school — who attend one of the seven schools in the district.
Each student experiences school differently based on their background. The Press of Atlantic City spoke to six Pleasantville students and will report periodically throughout the school year on their hopes and goals as they move through high school.
“Well, I heard it was just going to be a mess. And when I came here, it wasn’t a mess. It was just a little bit difficult initially,” said the slender 17-year-old just a few days before the start of his senior year. He was in the gym that morning, hanging out with his father.
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The Egg Harbor Township resident transferred to the district last fall because of its basketball program, which he said was very advanced on the court and in teamwork. It wasn’t his first time as a student here — he lived in the district until second grade. Since coming back to Pleasantville, Latrell said he has enjoyed making new friends and reconnecting with old ones.
“I like mingling a lot with the people here at this school,” he said.
For Latrell, it’s evident the students in Pleasantville care about their teachers, especially the ones they feel care about them.
“The teachers are very nice. They tend to help out the students a lot,” he said.
That enthusiasm for learning and teaching extends beyond the classroom for Latrell, who had a job teaching students about computer programming and robotics and worked for the district’s afterschool program.
“I feel like helping the younger generation can be an imprint of something that the older generations have done,” he said.
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Latrell said he is taking his senior year to focus on preparing for college — he wants to study computer science — and appreciates the opportunities Pleasantville has given him to visit schools. One thing he would change about the district, he said, is adding more time to hang out with friends.
Akeem Walker and Brian Stalworth
“It’s pretty good to me, but outside looking in, it probably looks bad,” Akeem Walker said of Pleasantville High School, noting the district’s reputation for scandal.
Born in Jamaica, Akeem is likely one of the youngest students in the senior class at 16. He said he always liked growing up “getting to hang out with the older kids.” He hopes to go to college next year for free.
Inside a vacant guidance office on the first day of school, Akeem and fellow Greyhounds football teammate senior Brian Stalworth said they enjoy some of the academic parts of school — Akeem math and Brian English — but also the socialization. For Brian, a soft-spoken 17-year-old with a big grin, his eyes lit up with the mention of football.
“All I do is football,” he said, adding he hopes to go to college and play.
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Akeem said the district is doing a good job of getting the students ready for a post-secondary education.
“We’re getting a lot of college-credit classes now, so if a student wants to be prepared they can take that upon themselves to take the classes. Some students don’t want to do the work. We have a lot of college-credit courses, so they’re doing a lot,” Akeem said.
What they don’t like are lectures and computer lessons.
“I like to be more hands-on instead of teachers just talking, lecturing me,” Akeem said.
Akeem said the biggest issues facing the students in Pleasantville are violence, gangs and drugs. Asked whether he thinks the district is addressing those problems, Akeem was unsure.
“I don’t really know, but I hope they’re trying to help,” he said.
Both teens admitted they probably wouldn’t know whom to go to in order to find out.
“I don’t think a lot of people know who the superintendent and administrators are,” Akeem said.
“We should know,” Brian added.
Cynthia Blackman walked into her former guidance counselor’s office disappointed on the first day of school. Despite the desk still cluttered with items and the book shelf filled with papers, her assigned counselor was no longer in the district. She didn’t know what happened to her guidance counselor and expressed concern she wasn’t signed up to take driver’s education.
Like most of her classmates, Cynthia, a 16-year-old junior, is looking forward to getting her driver’s license next year.
If students don’t complain — and Cynthia said they don’t — no one notices there is a problem, she said.
“Like not having a guidance counselor, we just go with the flow,” she said.
Cynthia said high school could be better if the administration reached out to the students more for their opinions.
“Nobody even asks us what do you think could improve the school or what could make this better,” she said. “They wouldn’t even know what our needs are.”
Cynthia is the youngest of seven kids and lives in Pleasantville with her dad, who works in the district. Her mom lives in Wildwood.
Although she thinks there’s too much drama at school, Cynthia said she enjoys learning, especially English.
“Every English teacher I’ve had so far, they were really good teachers, so they made English easy and fun to learn,” she said.
Miche Marcelin and Gloria Janit Salazar Ramirez
Both Gloria Janit Salazar Ramirez and Michekender “Miche” Marcelin say their family backgrounds have made them focused students, but that more students need to care.
“It’s really annoying when you take something very serious and other people just don’t,” Gloria said.
Miche said he thinks the school addresses the behavior at first, but there is no follow-through.
“It all comes down to how the parents treat them at home. They can’t let them get away with stuff that the school enforces rules (on),” Gloria said.
Both Miche, a sophomore, and Gloria, a junior, are members of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Miche, 17, was born in Haiti and moved to Pleasantville at 6 years old. Gloria, 15, was also born out of the country, in Mexico, but is now a permanent resident.
If she doesn’t join the Army, Gloria wants to study criminology or pathology. She wants to be in the FBI. Miche said he would like to go to MIT to study mechanical engineering.
The two students said they think the district could use more parental involvement and although neither knew who the superintendent or board members in the district are, they agreed they probably should.
“Because you need to know who you’re surrounded with, you need to know who’s in charge,” Gloria said.