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In the Bronx, an embattled school tries to do more with less

This school year, GothamSchools and WNYC reporters will follow three New York City high schools as they try to improve. The following is an introduction to one of those schools: Christopher Columbus High School.

Christopher Columbus High School sits on a quiet street in the Bronx that’s actually a no man’s land in the middle of a policy war.

The city’s Department of Education has been threatening to close Columbus since 2003. Mayor Bloomberg has called it, and other schools like it, “failures” and warned parents against enrolling their children there, saying the students would “probably never recover from it.” About 300 ninth-graders enrolled in the school regardless, but the school’s future is still precarious. Caught in a fight between the city and the teachers union, it is being starved while other struggling schools are getting help.

Among the changes at Columbus this year are a freshman class that has shrunk by more than a hundred students, a budget that is down by more than $1 million, and widespread uncertainty over whether the city will succeed in closing the school on its second try.

But unlike some of the other 18 schools saved from closure by a union lawsuit, Columbus is still fighting. Its principal of eight years, Lisa Fuentes, applied to convert Columbus into a charter school focused on serving high-needs students. Its teachers and students are already planning rallies in the school’s defense.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein still plans to begin phasing out Columbus next year and replacing it with a new school. On the first day of school this year, he told reporters, “These are schools we intend to phase out. The solution … is to replace [them] with better schools. We’ve done this so many times in this city and we’ve succeeded and that will continue to be our strategy.”

In the meantime, Columbus is in limbo. Unlike the schools selected to receive federal transformation funds, it did not get extra money this year — instead, its budget shrank by over $1 million. The city cut another $50,000 from Columbus’s Renaissance program, which gives special attention to students with children of their own and those who need to hold down full-time jobs during the day. And though the city and teachers union brokered a deal that was supposed to give schools like Columbus additional support, this help has not arrived.

That’s left Fuentes unable to afford to hire enough teachers to cover all the necessary classes. Because of budget cuts, a smaller enrollment, and the fact that most of Columbus’s teachers have been in the system more than five years and have higher salaries, her budget for this year couldn’t stretch to cover everyone’s pay. She had let go of over 30 teachers and even now, months into the school year, there are classes being taught by a rotating group of excessed teachers rather than full-time instructors.

Columbus shares its building with four other schools and its enrollment of 1,19o students is now roughly a quarter of the size it was ten years ago. About 44 percent of its students are Latino, and 35 percent are black. After Spanish, Albanian is the second most common language, and 25 percent of the school’s students are not fluent in English. A quarter of Columbus’s students require special education services.

About 5 percent of Columbus’s students are homeless and 20 percent live with people who are not their parents or legal guardians.

Fuentes and her staff are trying to make the best of the situation. A group of teachers is meeting weekly to work on a new curriculum and the school is planning field trips to colleges a way of encouraging students to think past graduation. At the end of last school year, Columbus graduated about 47 percent of its seniors. This year they have less to work with, but they’re aiming higher.

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