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NYC School Closings Leave Some Students Lost in Transition

Tilden High School guidance counselor Antoine Vaval displays a book containing phone numbers of students and parents whom he has been speed dialing every day, for months, in an effort to remind the students to come to school and take their final exams.
Tilden High School guidance counselor Antoine Vaval displays a book containing phone numbers of students and parents whom he has been speed dialing every day, for months, in an effort to remind the students to come to school and take their final exams.
—Liz Willen/Hechinger Institute
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An eerie silence pervades the cavernous hallways as Samuel J. Tilden High School prepares to graduate its final class. After 80 years, the hulking Brooklyn institution that once graduated a thousand seniors a year will host a scaled-down ceremony today, handing out diplomas to about 65 survivors.

Years of plunging graduating rates and increasing violence spelled the end for Tilden, one of five failing New York City high schools that will be shut down permanently this month.

“This is IT Students! Tilden High School will close in June 2010. We want YOU to make it out by then!” proclaim yellow signs on every doorway. Staff members are rolling up diplomas and grading final exams that will determine who gets the diplomas.

The last two corridors and part of another floor that still belong to Tilden will be absorbed by small themed academies of 400 to 500 students each, a key part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s education reform strategy. Most who could leave Tilden during its four-year phase-out already have.

“The bottom line in regards to phasing out a school is trying to graduate as many kids as possible,” says Tilden Principal Livingstone Hilaire, who won’t know until the last minute how many students will make it.

Inside the guidance office, desks are piled with the transcripts of students who won’t. As phones ring, the staff scrambles to find summer schools and places for students who have aged out of the system, or who didn’t have enough credits to graduate.

Students work on their credit recovery courses at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Students work on their credit recovery courses at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
—Vadim Lavrusik

“It’s been like critical-injury triage around here,” says Assistant Principal Halley Tache. “The kids who won’t get out—they break my heart. Where are they going to go? We want to save the largest number that we can.”

Among those with uncertain futures are 19-year-old twin brothers Maxson and Maxim Joseph and their 21-year-old sister, Minouche, immigrants from Haiti who are still struggling to learn English. Maxson Joseph says he doesn’t know what to do. “If I don’t graduate, I’ll have to go to another school, but where?” he says.

Along with neighboring Brooklyn giants Lafayette and South Shore high schools, Tilden stopped accepting incoming freshmen after Chancellor Joel Klein announced he was phasing out the schools in December 2006. The once-beloved Brooklyn institutions graduated celebrities such as baseball players Sandy Koufax (Lafayette) and Willie Randolph (Tilden), as well as Larry King of CNN (Lafayette).

In the waning months before their final graduations, though, the unintended consequences of Mayor Bloomberg’s strategy have become clear at both Tilden and Lafayette, where so few kids show up each day that history teachers Patrick Compton and Richard Mangone have experienced near-empty classrooms for months. They joke about the shrinking of Lafayette, from five full floors to just a cluster of classrooms.

“We’ve tried to minimize the stigma of leaving a closing school, but it’s a bad situation,” says Mr. Mangone, who is retiring after 28 years. Like many staff members at Tilden, he believes there were better ways to solve the problems. “Instead of dismantling this school, they should have supported it.”

Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein believe otherwise. They have closed 91 schools since 2002, including 20 large high schools, replacing them either with charter schools or smaller schools in the same buildings. Mr. Klein says the strategy helped boost graduation rates in the largest school system in the United States, from 47 percent in 2005 to 63 percent last year, according to state figures. He maintains that the small high schools have graduation rates of 75 percent, which he says are 15 percent higher than others in the city and far superior to those of Tilden, Lafayette, and South Shore.

A report released on June 22 by the New York-based research firm MDRC and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also documented a boost in graduation rates at the small high schools, an increasingly popular alternative nationally to large so-called dropout factories. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly supported the idea of closing failing schools or dramatically shaking things up, even firing the entire staff. ("Study Finds Success in NYC's 'Small Schools,'" June 23, 2010.)

As school reforms go, though, the strategy of replacing large high schools has drawbacks, says Aaron Pallas, a professor of education and sociology at Teachers College, Columbia University, who with New York University professor Jennifer Jennings is researching the city’s experiment with small schools.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that happens with school reform—you wind up sacrificing the experiences and opportunities for a current set of kids to make things better for future sets of kids,” Mr. Pallas says. “The emphasis was, let’s create these smaller schools with new cohorts of 9th graders who will have better experiences, and it may well be what happened. But it didn’t address the quality of experience for those who are staying.”

With the closings of Tilden and Lafayette came smaller staffs and diminished services, according a 2009 reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader by Advocates for Children and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, both of which are based in New York. The students left behind tend to be older and are often English-language learners, unable to navigate the 1.1-million-student district. Many left long ago for night school or General Educational Development programs, while a third of the current class took online courses to earn credits for classes they’d previously failed.

Those left behind are lost when it comes to figuring out what to do after Tilden High shuts down, says Stevenson Petit, a guidance counselor at Tilden. Only one high school in Brooklyn still maintains a full Haitian-Creole bilingual program, and openings elsewhere are hard to come by.

“They have more fear about going to Manhattan,” says Mr. Petit, who is trying to find adult-skills or GED programs that will take older students like 21-year-old Minouche Joseph. Earlier this week, he told the three Joseph siblings that they had failed the state Regents exam in English and did not have enough credits to graduate. He is frustrated by the lack of appropriate options for their futures.

Providing solutions to such problems must be part of any school reform strategy, says Christine Sturgis of Metisnet, a consultant to foundations and governments on high school reform.

“Any effort to improve high schools must include a complementary strategy to address the needs of overage and undercredited students,” Ms. Sturgis says. “A group of kids won’t be graduating unless you put into place schools and services that meet their needs. … [I]t’s a civil rights issue.”

The strategy of closing failing high schools hit another roadblock in New York City in March when a judge blocked Chancellor Klein’s plan to close 19 additional schools for poor performance. Some neighborhood groups oppose closing the schools, pointing out that students who can’t find their way out of troubled schools often don’t have the skills to navigate the system’s 1,600 schools—a task that confounds even the most savvy of parents and students.

Two who made it at Lafayette and Tilden overcame considerable odds. “When I applied to Lafayette, everyone told me it was a horrible school, and I tried to get a transfer,” says Krista Sannuto, 17, who plans to attend community college after graduating from Lafayette. “Then I started making friends, and it didn’t seem so bad. But a whole bunch of my friends left and went to night school.”

Djenyva Sagesse, who will graduate from Tilden today, had no help from her parents. She moved from Haiti in 2006 and lived with her brother and then a cousin not far from the school. She’s 19, and for two years she has paid her own rent and worked a part-time job, relying on the guidance staff at Tilden to plan her future. She’ll be studying nursing at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn this fall.

“Sometimes I didn’t want to go to class, but they [the guidance staff] encouraged me to go every day,” says Ms. Sagesse.

Two of three guidance counselors at Tilden speak Haitian-Creole, which is critical in the largely Haitian and Caribbean neighborhood. When students showed up in the office on a recent weekday trying to speak their native tongue, the counselors implored them to speak English instead. Like the staff of all closing high schools, the guidance counselors have spent the last few months circulating their own resumes and interviewing for jobs–between calls to students and parents.

“We have single parents from Haiti leaving the house at 5 a.m., and I call, and no one is home,” says Michael Carvahal, a dean and social studies teacher who was perusing a list of students who didn’t show up for final exams. “The kid is still sleeping. The parent doesn’t know how to help.”

For Tilden’s principal, Mr. Hilaire, who is a 1984 graduate of the school, today’s graduation ceremony will still be a celebration, even if only half the 123 students who remain get a diploma. When he came to the school two years ago, about 700 students were enrolled.

For Mr. Petit, time is running out to place every last student somewhere. He won’t even have a desk after Monday.

“For the kids that don’t make it, it’s going to be a sad moment,” Mr. Petit says. “But I am trying to push myself to make sure that all of them have a place before I leave. The path is to save one kid at a time, and if you save one, you do the job.”

Vol. 29, Issue 36

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