In Mott Haven, the section of the Bronx where Letters is located, an estimated 47 percent of the population is below the age of 24. According to numbers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 155 out of 1000 births in the South Bronx are to teenage mothers. Within the borough, Mott Haven has the highest rate of teenage motherhood, according to the city’s 2009 Annual Summary of Vital Statistics with almost 15 percent of the section’s live births to teenagers. Perhaps another very telling indicator is that there are no bookstores in Mott Haven. The nearest is a Barnes & Noble at the Hostos Community College, less than a mile from the school. There are eight liquor stores within the same radius.
The building that houses Letters is flanked by rusted and graying warehouses to one side and a tower of public housing on the other. Located in the poorest congressional district in the nation, 87 percent of students at the school qualify to receive free lunch. They are almost entirely Black and Latino. In New York City, graduation rates for those two groups hovered around 60 percent in 2010. The numbers were just over 50 percent in the Bronx.
The school’s facilities are unlike others in the area. They have a library for starters. Outside of Letters’ library is a large mural. It is a collage of words with letters highlighted in red that come together to spell “read.” Above most doorways in the building are pennants bearing the names of colleges and universities. A survey of the school revealed that 95 percent of students said that their teachers expected them to continue their education after high school. In addition, 93 percent of parents reported being satisfied with their child’s education. For their efforts, the teachers and staff graduated 83 percent of their seniors last year and sent 90 percent of them off to college.