As the Department of Education begins holding meetings at the high schools officials are considering closing, some of the schools are tapping into decades-worth of alumni ties and institutional memory to defend themselves.
Representatives of Boys and Girls High School, Juan Morel Campos Secondary School, and DeWitt Clinton High School have put out press releases encouraging families, community members and the press to attend the department’s “early engagement” meetings at their schools this week.
At the meetings, which are typically closed to the public, superintendents and other department officials will listen to teachers, families and administrators describe their schools’ strengths and the challenges they face. The meetings are a required first step in the process by which the city initiates school closures under state law.
The department typically recommends closure for about half of the schools that undergo early engagement each year, but the process by which officials narrow down the preliminary hit list is murky. School communities are expected to make the case that their schools should stay open, despite low graduation rates and other issues, and demonstrate that they have the capacity to make dramatic improvements.
Teachers at DeWitt Clinton High School, a large school in the West Bronx, said they received little information from the department about their meeting, which is set to take place Thursday evening, but teachers union representatives encouraged them to turn out in force.
In a press release, veteran teacher Alan Ettman nodded to the 115 year-old school’s history as a strong school with famous alumni, but warned of its burgeoning problems.
“Just 13 years ago, Clinton was ranked among the top 100 high schools in the country,” he wrote. “But over the last four years, its story has been simplified to a narrative of decline, a result of many factors such as ineffective governmental policies and reliance on statistical calcuations that favor small schools over large, comprehensive ones.”
The school’s struggles, he wrote, are reflective of the high-needs students it enrolls and the budgetary constraints all schools are facing. Of this year’s 950-some ninth graders, the release says, more than 100 were considered long term absences in eighth grade, meaning they rarely showed up for classes, and more than 100 failed a majority of their eighth grade classes and require remediation.
Jeff Levine, a dean who has worked at Clinton for 15 years, said in a phone interview that the expansive Bronx high school, which serves close to 4,000 students a year, has taken a turn for the worse since he began teaching in the 1990s.
“When I first came here it seemed like a pretty good school, he said. But now, “It seems the caliber of the students has gone down. You find that a lot of them have been involved in gangs… there’s a lot more English language learners, a lot more special education, and I’m told that many students are homeless and living in shelters.”
Student attendance was once higher than it’s current rate, 77 percent, he said, and students were allowed to leave campus to buy lunch. Now Clinton’s is a closed campus, and everyone who enters the school must pass through metal detectors.
Levine said he suspects that Clinton has received more high-needs students over the years who would have historically enrolled at other large Bronx schools, like Columbus High School, that have since been closed.
He said the school’s main challenges center around its high-needs students—19 percent are English Language Learners, and at least 75 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch—but it has been making an effort to help them. Three years ago, he said the school created a special program for the most challenged students, who now receive extra attention from teachers.
“I think it can improve. Maybe a few years ago when the gang situation occurred, It looked like things were shaky, but since that time we created this program, and it seems that that helped,” he said. “Overall the environment is pretty good, i think the kids like going here, a lot of them are enthusiastic about the school.”
Paula Collins, a music teacher at Juan Morel Campos, another school undergoing early engagement, sent out a press releases encouraging the media and community members to attend the hearing this evening. In the release, she said the school struggles because of its “fragile population”— a quarter of its students are English language learners and a quarter need special education services, and about three quarters receive free and reduced lunch.
And Bedford-Stuyvesant community activist Jitu Weusi directed reporters to a Facebook page announcing “Bed Stuy Stands With Boys & Girls High School,” and urging people to attend its Tuesday night meeting. So far more than 90 people, including alumni, have RSVPed to the meeting.
“The nerve of them to openly try to close a school with a long and honorable history in the black community,” one invitee wrote on the event page. “[Boys and Girls is] a school that so many committed black educators walked through and taught at, a school that should be nurtured and supported.”