When they come home from college, Liberation Diploma Plus High alumnae Ashley Brown and Nijah Preacher make a point of seeing their high school principal.

This visit was a special one, however. On Wednesday morning, Brown and Preacher sat in the auditorium with current students who clapped and shouted “We love you!” as Principal April Leong received a 2014 Sloan Public Service Award.

The annual awards honor six “outstanding civil servants,” and each comes with a $10,000 prize. Over 100 students, teachers, alumni and community members attended the ceremony, which Leong called a “humbling” experience.

“I can’t explain or describe what kind of honor this really is,” Leong said. “I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” she later insisted.

Specifically, that means running Liberation Diploma Plus, a small transfer high school in Coney Island with approximately 180 students. They arrive after nearly dropping out, or having struggled to earn credits at their original high schools.

Founded in 2007, Liberation is part of the national Diploma Plus network, which helps at-risk students graduate high school and prepare for college. In the 2012-2013 school year, Liberation’s graduation rate was comparable to other transfer schools despite the disruption caused by Superstorm Sandy.

Leong has high expectations: To graduate from Liberation, all students must apply to college, submit a form to qualify for financial aid, create a résumé, write a personal essay, and take part in an internship.

After seven years, Leong believes that Liberation is still evolving. “I never feel like we’ve figured out the recipe,” Leong said. “I don’t think the recipe exists.” And for Leong, there is always more to be done.

“Even hearing my kids talk [at the ceremony], I’m thinking about the kid who didn’t show up today,” she said.

It’s hard to go unnoticed in such a tight-knit community, and the school’s culture of support was evident on Wednesday in more ways than one. A moment of silence was held during the ceremony for Manuel Ocampo, an 18-year-old student who was fatally shot on May 27.

Outside of the auditorium where the ceremony was held hung a large poster dedicated to Ocampo that had been signed by students and staff members.

“His funeral was yesterday,” Leong said quietly. “It’s been a very challenging couple of weeks.”

Adversity is a constant reality for the school community; Leong herself was raised by a single mother and had a child shortly after high school. But at Liberation, students “can let their guard down,” Leong said. “They are not who they are outside.”

Ashley Brown and Nijah Preacher graduated from Liberation Diploma Plus High School three years ago. They still come back to visit Principal Leong.
Ashley Brown and Nijah Preacher graduated from Liberation Diploma Plus High School three years ago. They still come back to visit Principal Leong.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jackie Schechter

Liberation was also hit hard by Sandy in 2012, with water rising to five feet on the building’s first floor. Leong said she still hasn’t completely recovered. But the process of rebuilding, she felt, re-energized Liberation’s teachers.

After the ceremony, Leong greeted students, staff members, and other attendees, including Brown and Preacher. Both recently completed their third year of college, and Leong has continued to support them, whether by assisting with room deposits and textbook costs or having dinner with them over breaks.

She also helped them adjust to living among other students “who don’t share their common story.” The little things, Leong said, “could have really been the deal breakers for them in so many ways.”

“Even when I need her to yell at me because I know I’m slacking, she’s there,” Brown said. “We’ve both had times where we really wanted to give up. Ms. Leong definitely is more than an old principal, she is our mother figure.”

Preacher, who has dyslexia, switched to Liberation from nearby John Dewey High School, a much larger school where she said she felt “lost” and had a 75 average.

“Here, the environment is different,” Preacher said. She graduated as valedictorian with a 97 average.

“She beat me by half a point,” Brown laughed. “I was so upset.”

Shortly after the ceremony, Leong was approached by a female student smiling sheepishly. It was the absent girl whom Leong had worried about earlier. The problem was that she had mistaken the time, the student explained as Leong hugged her, not that she didn’t want to be there.

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