Roobenson St. Martin strolls into the Bassick High School cafeteria with a basketball under one arm and an eye on the clock. It’s posted on the wall, right near the doors, and the bold, red numbers are flashing 10:33 AM. That’s a good thing, too. Rooben and his friends aren’t scheduled on the court for a while so they have some free time.

“Sometimes buildOn kids are allowed to play in the gym,” he notes, sitting down at a round table towards the back of the room.

But, Rooben has a lot more to say than just that. His mouth is always running, sharing thoughts and anecdotes, stories and musings. The constant conversationalist. He’s also “the cocky one,” Joel Medina says. Everyone around the table laughs, but Rooben shrugs it off. There’s an element of truth to what Joel is saying. Plus, the pair have been friends since sixth grade. To say that they know each other well is an understatement.

They’re joined by two other friends, Eddie Vega and Shamel Plummer. Eddie is quiet and thoughtful, wearing the baseball cap he’s rarely without. Shamel has his head down on the table. He woke up too early today. He’s the next to get strife from the group for his hunter green polo shirt. “Why are you wearing your uniform today?” Apparently, uniforms are rarely enforced since few students stick to the dress code. Plus, since they have finished their midterms, these seniors technically do not need to be on campus today.


Bassick High School is an imposing brick building, sandwiched between Bridgeport, Connecticut’s bustling Fairfield Avenue and State Street. The school appears quiet from the outside. Inside, especially between classes, it’s a different story. The hallways are flanked by lockers and lit overhead by stark fluorescent lighting that reflects strangely off of the waxed floor tiles.

“Before buildOn moved here, this hallway used to be the worst,” Eddie says. “Now it’s a peaceful hallway. It’s the perfect place to be.”

He’s talking about the hall outside of the first floor classroom that buildOn moved into this year. Since it’s not far from the cafeteria, it is a main thoroughfare for students. Students are allowed to visit buildOn when they have a free period or a pass from a teacher so the room is rarely empty.

“You can just walk there and feel safe no matter what. It’s like [buildOn] commands the hallway to be different,” Rooben says.

Bassick has something of a bad reputation. Schools in cities like Bridgeport are often categorized with a slew of stereotypes. Loud, dirty and dangerous. A place where unhappy students learn from unhappier teachers. Where students from the “troubled” school are seen as trouble themselves. Fairfield County, Connecticut, where Bridgeport is located, might be the wealthiest metropolitan area in the United States, but it’s also home to rampant income inequality. In 2012, Bridgeport’s median household income just topped $37,500 while Greenwich, just 30 minutes south on Interstate 95, boasted $121,245.


Numbers never tell the whole story, but it is impossible to deny that the odds are stacked against Bassick’s students from the start. Inequality in the region has been growing for years. Implementing sweeping improvements at under-resourced schools cannot happen overnight, thought things are noticeably improving. The four-year graduation rate at Bassick increased from 47.9 percent to 59.2 percent in 2014, according to local media. That’s a drastic change for Bridgeport, but still a long way to go.

For a real impact to be felt, the students say, attitudes need changing too. It is hard to care about school when many people around you see little value in academics. One key outcome of buildOn’s youth service learning programs is academic engagement, where students better recognize their potential and feel comfortable in their school environments.

Rooben, Joel, Eddie and Shamel are working hard to break down the stereotypes facing youth in their community. They are not perfect. But what teenager is?

This week we are celebrating this “crew.” as Shamel calls them. They are mainstays at the buildOn youth service learning program at Bassick. Collectively, they have completed over 500 hours of service. They do not plan on stopping even as graduation looms ahead. Here, the bond of friendship is especially strong. They are driven to participate in service for themselves and motivated by one another to continue giving back. They are empowered too to create a better future for themselves and their communities. They are key members of the buildOn movement.