Brockton, Massachusetts is a city of 100,000. Fully 30,000 of them are Cape Verdean, from or descended from people on the small Portuguese-speaking island nation off West Africa.
Many of the kids go to the city's public schools, a struggling system that’s turned around recently — but not for everyone.
At a bowling alley, 20-year old Kevin, a tall lanky man, relaxes over a soda. He’s not here to knock down pins.
“I just chill with my friends. Be around girls and that’s it.”
Kevin's unemployed. But being at the bowling alley, he says, means he’s not on the streets of Brockton, where violent crime rates are among the highest in the state. Police say Cape Verdean gangs have taken root here, and it means a lot of these immigrants get arrested in disproportionately greater numbers. So this bowling alley is a haven of sorts.
“It might keep you out of trouble, unless you run into someone,” explains Kevin.
I asked him if he has enemies.
“Yeah, a lot of them, throughout the city. The city hates me. But, I love my city.”
Kevin’s city is the third largest Cape Verdean community in the world and the largest in the US. He is second generation. His parents — now split up — settled in Brockton, the birthplace of boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. A lot of people here are fighters — fighting to get by in a working-class city and fighting to stay in school:
“I got kicked out for something that didn’t happen in school. Over stupidity,” says Kevin.
He is one of hundreds of Cape Verdean youth who saw high school cut short for one reason or another. About a year ago, though, he finally got his diploma:
“I went to Phoenix. It’s an alternative school.”
That’s the nickname for the school here called B.B. Russell, where kids like Kevin try to finish what they began. Street workers like Joey Gomes helped out there.
"We had an office at the school, which deals with kids who are being kicked out of high school," he explains. "They would come to us and it would be for little things — cigarettes, may smell like marijuana, or the kid came in late — they get demerits.”
Gomes, known as “Joey G," says the kids he mentored were kicked out or dropped out of school. He tried to understand why that was happening. Despite his efforts though, some students turned to thug life. It is a life Joey G knows well.
“I was incarcerated for 17 years, 8 months and one hour.”
Gomes was locked up on attempted murder and bank robbery convictions. Gangs are the big attraction for some disenfranchised. Inside, Gomes says he saw a pipeline of young men from Cape Verde to prison.
“I seen a lot of brothers that came here and following the flow of whatever they seen, monkey see monkey do, monkey want to do just like you. Brothers that were trying to become Westernized, but in the process of trying to be Westernized they ended up with 15- to 20-year mandatory, and after they served that 15 to 20 years, they going to get deported back to Cape Verde with nothing, came here with nothing, tried to establish something and then get deported with nothing.”
Joey G says school officials need to work “a lot harder to find out what’s going on inside Cape Verdean households before expelling kids like Kevin.
Kathleen Smith, superintendent of Brockton Public Schools, agrees.
“We recently have a new system that came in place because of the pipeline to prison and students dropping out and not having that opportunity to get the high school credential, the diploma,” she says.
Smith says that the school system is looking at new ways of disciplining students and reassessing the reasons for such discipline.
“You have educators that are used to a code of conduct and some of it is zero tolerance to now looking at mitigating circumstances.”
Those circumstances include students living in substandard housing, joblessness and the loss of tight-knit communities that existed back in Cape Verde. Acknowledging this came too late for Kevin. And he says he knows other young Cape Verdeans who dropped out of school and made a bee-line for the streets:
“I knows peoples like going in today. Getting locked up today—gun charges, drug charges. Everyday there’s someone new and I know em’. It’s a small city.”
And how do you turn that around?
At Brockton School headquarters, a framed 2010 New York Times article hangs on the lobby wall. It details how Brockton High — once regarded as a failure — is now considered a model of success, outperforming 90 percent of high schools in Massachusetts. The Gates Foundation cited it as one of the nation’s most successful high schools.
“We have a large a linguistic community made up of Cape Verdean students,” says Smith. “And the focus is on literacy needed for a high school diploma.”
But she says dropout and expulsion rates of more than 3 percent are still too high — a problem exacerbated by poverty.
“We have close to six or seven hundred students in our district at any time that are considered homeless. Sometimes we find some of these students are working at 5 in the morning and coming to school at 7 a.m. When that comes into the schools and you talk about a pipeline to prisons, I think that has to do with what we're facing as a society.”
Smith says if she can keep addressing skills and basic needs, she can keep more students from dropping out.
At the bowling alley, Kevin admits that he’s had close calls on the streets since leaving school.
“I got shot in my car. Like a bullet went right past my head. They could have freakin’ ended me, but they never did.”
His mentor, Joey G, worries about Kevin. He’s seen it all before.
“At Norfolk State prison, I seen a lot of young Cape Verdean brothers coming through the penal system.”
Joey G is working to make sure that doesn’t happen to Kevin, especially now, with his diploma; they’re working together to get Kevin employed and off the streets.