For most of her high school career at Bedford Academy High School, a pilot institution started by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Tashawnee Guarriello didn’t view education as a priority. She went to class only because she was “supposed to.” Now, she works as an advocate counselor at the Brooklyn Democracy Academy and feels her life has come full circle.
“I was inspired by some of my teachers and mentors and want to do for other students what they did for me,” said Guarriello. She has since gone on to college and established a career for herself in youth development, eventually finding a home working at the Brooklyn Democracy Academy, a program that is sponsored by the Jewish Child Care Association.
Unlike most high schools in New York City, the Brooklyn Democracy Academy exists as a last resort for teenagers who have failed out of other high schools in the city. Students are mostly from the Brownsville area, are considered to be underserved, and live in broken or unstable homes. Working with such a student population requires staff who can give extra attention to youth when needed and exercise a degrees of flexibility. That is why the school employs advocate counselors like Guarriello, who step into a variety of roles throughout the day.
“My day-to-day responsibilities are more like moment-to-moment responsibilities,” Guarriello joked.
Being an advocate counselor differs from being a guidance counselor in that it is a much more hand-on role. From town crier to cop to cheerleader, Guarriello is whomever her students need her to be. In the morning, she gives some of the 35 students she works with wake-up calls to remind them they’re expected to come to school During the school day, she walks the halls, badgering students - who may be taking too long to get to class - to get to class. And in one-on-one meetings with students, she discusses their long-term and short-term goals and dreams, coming up with individualized game plans for success.
For Guarriello, at the heart of being an advocate counselor is the need to be the mentor many of her students never had. Many students at the Brooklyn Democracy Academy, for one reason or another, come from homes lacking strong, parental influences and live in the Brownsville area, where access and resources are limited, and crime is high.
“Sometimes I find myself faced with kids from rival gangs walking in the same halls or a student who is feeling like she want to give up,” Guarriello said.
Yet she is hopeful that the Brownsville community will resurge if more teenagers are nurtured into successful young adults.
The challenges Guarriello faces on a daily basis can seem insurmountable. One of the students Guarriello worked with had two children by the age of 16 and even had a short stay in prison.
“She would come in days to school really down and overwhelmed with her life and the situation she found herself in.“ Guarriello said.
But the rewards can also be great. Guarriello eventually saw that student she mentored graduate high school, get hired for her first job and go on to college.
Guarriello finds a way to stay positive and to keep herself motivated. It is often just a matter of cherishing the little things. “Sometimes there's a student who’s maybe a little rude and he stops and yells, “Hi Ms. Shawnee.’ Everyday I get a little reward.”