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NYC's Strategy for Shutting Schools Leaves Some Students Lost in Transition

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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 on Friday, 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 are rolling up diplomas and grading final exams.

The
last two corridors and part of another floor that still belong to Tilden
will be absorbed by small themed academies of 400-500 students, a key
part of
Mayor
Michael Bloomberg's

education reform strategy. Most who could flee 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 till 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 off the hooks, 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.

"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 School,

Tilden stopped accepting incoming freshmen after Chancellor Klein announced
he was phasing out these schools in December 2006. The once-beloved
Brooklyn institutions graduated celebrities like 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 Bloomberg's strategy have become clear at both Tilden
in East Flatbush and Lafayette in Bensonhurst, 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 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."

Bloomberg
and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein believe otherwise.
They've closed
91 schools since 2002
,
including 20 large high schools, replacing them either with charter
schools or smaller schools in the same buildings. Klein says the strategy
helped boost graduation rates in the
largest
school system in the U.S.,

from 47 percent in 2005 to 63 percent last year, according to state
figures. He maintains 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 22nd 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
drop-out factories. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan
has repeatedly supported the idea of closing failing schools or dramatically
shaking things up, even firing the entire staff.


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," Pallas says. "The
emphasis was, let's create these smaller schools with new cohorts
of ninth-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
report 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 GED 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 next after
Tilden 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 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 all three Joseph
siblings that they had failed the English Regents exam 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 under-credited students," Sturgis
says. "A group of kids won't be graduating unless you put into place
schools and services that meet their needs ... it'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 on June 25, 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's 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 everyday," says 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 résumés and interviewing
for jobs - between constantly calling kids 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 principal Hilaire, who is a 1984 graduate of the school, Friday's
graduation ceremony will still be a celebration, even if only half of
the 123 students who remain get a diploma. When he came to the school
two years ago, about 700 were still enrolled.

For
Petit, though, time is running out to place every last student somewhere.
He won't even have a desk after June 28.

"For
the kids that don't make it, it's going to be a sad moment," 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."