From Poverty to the Classroom: One Teacher's Journey

When students at Hudson Valley Pathways Academy (HVPA) struggle with their schoolwork because of issues happening at home, Richard Karl Meng-Haviland knows exactly what they're going through.

Meng-Haviland, who has been teaching science at HVPA for three years, traveled his own rough road to success, an experience that gave him deep empathy and compassion for his students.

"I grew up with a single mother and three siblings in a shack of a house in the back woods of New Paltz," Meng-Haviland said. "We had little money, no running water, no telephone, no indoor plumbing or electricity."

Home-schooled until the fifth grade, he found it hard to acclimate to the structured environment of public school. In eleventh grade, he dropped out of high school when he wasn't allowed to graduate early. That following fall, he convinced instructors at SUNY New Paltz to allow him to take classes without a high school diploma or having taken his SATs. After taking all of his freshman core college classes for the year, he earned his High School Equivalency Diploma.

In the ten years that followed, he worked a variety of jobs, including sales, security system installations, warehouse stocking, kitchen help, and a stint at IBM. Twelve years would pass before he decided to go back to college. In 2011 and 2013, he would earn his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in education, respectively, from SUNY New Paltz.

Amid the challenges of his early life, however, Meng-Haviland found important lessons. He learned to share, be grateful, use his imagination, work hard, and to persevere. He sees his experiences as a blessing in disguise that taught him skills like optimism, goal-setting, and following through.

"When I look back on my childhood, I realize I was very lucky and I am thankful for the experience, as it made me the person I am today," he said.

Another skill Meng-Haviland gained from his past is compassion, which he uses to connect with his students at HVPA, some of whom haven't fared well in the traditional school setting and were in jeopardy of not graduating from high school.

"What makes HVPA successful is its small school environment. When kids feel like they can't do something, we are there to tell them differently," he said. "The P-TECH school model is about getting behind the underdogs, championing their cause, and pushing them to do better."

To Meng-Haviland, teaching isn't just about about memorization, passing tests, or keeping track of absences; but it's also about showing students how much they matter, making lessons fun, and helping students master practical skills like how to tie a necktie so that they look good for their first interview. He will often rearrange his schedule or stay late to assist students because he believes that "every student can succeed with a little help." It's one of the reasons why he believes so strongly in the P-TECH program.

He also believes the secret to success is thankfulness.

"It is only when students understand gratitude that they can begin their path to a rich life," he said.

Most HVPA students are achieving at impressive rates and have earned college credits for classes taken through the program. For the first time this year, Meng-Haviland not only saw three students qualify to take college-level English 101 while in high school, but he also saw these students pass the course. This achievement had little to do with Meng-Haviland and was more about his students persevering and using their own brainpower. Twelve more students are on track to take English 101 next year. He is elated with their accomplishments.

Meng-Haviland not only teaches students the importance of higher education, but he also listens to his own advice. He is currently working on another master's degree in Building and District Administration. Despite the short time he's been teaching, Meng-Haviland says, "I know what works, how to identify student needs and what strategies will work for them, and I have a desire to effect change." He not only expects great things from his students, but he also expects great things from himself.

"Everyone has the choice to change their life if they want. With hard work and a dream, anything is possible. Obstacles can always be overcome," Meng-Haviland exclaimed.