Rochester, N.Y. - Not far from the front door of PUC Achieve Charter School where Arkee Allen is now a principal, violence changed his brother's life. That in turn changed Allen's mission in life.
"One of my brothers had been shot around the corner at Hudson and Clifford, 7 times. I was driving my car one day and I said who is going to hire somebody who has been shot 7 times? How do you get employment after that? And so as I was driving I said, well you are going to employ them."
Knowing the harsh reality and the potential pitfalls for his students has shaped the way he relates to them. "I've been where you've been. I have that exact same story when I was your age, now let me tell you how I overcame it ," he said as he talked about relating to his students.
In his office is a framed picture of Friederich Park and Hudson Avenue in Rochester. It's where he grew up. He was not happy at first when his mom sent him to Irondequoit High School through the Urban Suburban Program. But, through new friends there and going to their homes, he saw a different way of life. For example, he never imagined a home with more than one bathroom.
"Now I'm going oh, to be successful to you don't have to do negative things. You don't have to sell drugs, etc. None of these guys do, their parents don't sell drugs and they have 1.5 bathrooms so suddenly my criteria for what I wanted in life really increased because my desire was to have a house on Friederich Park too growing up. And apparently it doesn't take much to do that. But I thought my mother was successful so that's what success was. So image all the students that grew up and this was their norm. Why don't you aspire to be something greater? Well, you think you are."
His horizons expanded there and through a Big Brother/Big Sister mentor named Art Alvut who is still very much in his life. And, Arkee Allen has always been competitive. His strategy in high school was to sit next to the smartest student and then challenged himself to do better than that student.
"I had the grades to go to the best schools in the country but without any actual idea that that's what I was doing. I was just doing it to prove people wrong. That I could be as smart as you, that was my only motivation really."
He took up wrestling at Irondequoit High School and ivy league colleges noticed. He went on to wrestle for and graduate from Columbia and then returned to Irondequoit High School as a math teacher. That's where he was at age 23 when his middle brother was murdered. The pastor's words at the funeral changed his life.
"I hear my name, he says everybody in this audience stop crying cause you have no idea what Arkee is going to do because of this. You have no idea how many lives he is going to touch. And you have no idea what beautiful is going to come out of him losing his brother. So don't worry, stop crying. He is going to take care of it."
A summer camp called Roc E6 grew out of that moment in 1999 and from his desire to reconnect with kids in the city of Rochester. Over time he earned two masters degrees and leadership positions in a few local school districts. He's been principal at PUC Achieve for almost a year.
Marcus Jenkins is going to be a 6th grader at PUC Achieve. "He got me into lacrosse cause in the beginning of the year I didn't do so good in school but once he got me into lacrosse and disciplined me, then I started doing better," Marcus told us.
The goal at PUC Achieve is to be a grade level ahead in reading and math with an "A" or "B" average. Principal Allen helps create measurable benchmarks for students to get there.
"I hate to say that's all it takes cause it's not that simple cause a kid wakes up one day wanting to be smart and the next day wakes up and is like do I really care? You know. And you gotta get up in their faces. Keep reminding them of their goals."
And he reminds them that he's been where they are, telling them: "Sky is the limit for you. Sky is the limit for all of you. I am a living, breathing example of that."