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What I Do: Matthew Colacurto, GED teacher

New York Teacher
Matthew Colacurto

A former social worker, Colacurto has for 15 years helped older students get their high school equivalency diplomas, most recently from a site in Harlem.

How long have you taught GED?

Fifteen years, but now the test is called TASC — Test Assessing Secondary Completion — which took the place of the GED. It’s part of the Pathways to Graduation program for students age 17 to 21.

What led you to this job?

I came into the system when there was a shortage of teachers. I got burned out as a social worker in Newark, working with AIDS patients. My two sisters were teachers, so when I decided to change careers I chose teaching. But I didn’t see myself in a traditional classroom, so Pathways was a good fit.

Tell me about your students.

My students come from the Bronx, Harlem and Washington Heights. They dropped out of traditional high schools for various reasons: They didn’t have enough credits, or they didn’t seek out the help they needed. They might have had a drug habit, or it might have been the home environment or attendance issues.

What is your classroom like?

It’s located in a storefront, near a laundromat, on West 145th Street in Harlem. It’s one big room, and I’m the only teacher my students have all day. It’s like “Little House on the Prairie.” But I’m responsible for everything, including attendance and discipline. I’m in constant contact with my assistant principal.

How many students are in your class?

We have rolling admissions — students are coming and going. We had 30 registered students last year. Some change their minds, have problems at home or have to work and so are unable to stay in the class.

How do they find you?

They want an equivalency diploma; that’s what brings them to us. First they go to Department of Education referral centers, where they’ll be tested on reading and math. Then they’ll be referred to one of our 70 satellite sites — some are DOE sites, but others are non-DOE, like my site, which is located at a community service agency. We have a good relationship with the agency, which is important to the success of the program.

How so?

Our host agency helps students feel accepted and wanted. They get to participate in the agency’s programs, which include drug prevention services and life skills workshops.

Do students have college or career plans when they arrive in your classroom?

I don’t think a lot of them have a clear sense of what they want to do when they come here. We help them to see the opportunities. The Pathways program sends college coaches to each TASC site to help students apply to college and to visit different colleges. Our students have gone on to City College, Bronx Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College.

What are your biggest challenges?

Some of my students have academic challenges; they come in with very low math and writing skills. But there are behavioral challenges as well. Many students often fall back into old behaviors.

How do you deal with that?

You have to build up mutual respect and know when and how to push them. I make calls if someone doesn’t show up for the start of class at 9:30 a.m. I call the student and the mom. The student will tell me, “Stop calling my mom!” I don’t care if you’re 20. I’m calling your mom.

Best moments?

When I make a connection with a student. They like the one-on-one attention I can give them. And it goes both ways. When my mother died over Easter break this year, I got a lot of email messages and phone calls from students.

The other great moment is when we go online to see TASC results come in, and the student learns he’s passed. It’s a real event.

— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio

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