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Two different goodbyes to a phase-out school's seniors

As students shimmied and wobbled on perilously high heels across the stage at Bayard Rustin High School’s graduation today, teachers commented on what a difficult year it had been.

The Chelsea high school began phasing out last fall when it opened without a new ninth grade, and it will close for good in 2012. In October four Bayard Rustin students attended a Harvard Black Alumni Society panel on the dropout crisis and confronted Chancellor Joel Klein about his decision to close their school.

At the time, Klein made the students a bet: if they graduated, and would like him to, he would speak at their graduation.

The four students did graduate and Klein did speak today, but it was another panel member, New York University sociologist Dr. Pedro Noguera, who the students asked to be their graduation speaker. Noguera has been critical of Klein’s decisions to phase out struggling schools. Here’s some of what he said:

Part of what attracted me to coming was what the students said. Students said they were worried about what it means to graduate from a school that’s being phased out. How will that affect you, how will that affect your future? And I was concerned too. And I thought it was a very very important question for those who run the schools to answer because we need to know that when we make changes in the name of improving our schools that sometimes there are casualties. And that we can never allow our students to be casualties of mistakes made by adults.

I want you to know first of all no matter what they label your school, you are not failures. You are successes today.

At the end of Klein’s speech he said, “I’d like to engage in one act of solidarity before I go.” And with that the chancellor pulled a Bayard Rustin class of 2010 graduation t-shirt (the lettering in shiny rainbow colors) over his suit and saluted the graduates. Then he sat back down, mopped his brow, and pulled the shirt back off.

According to the New York Times, Klein asked the school’s principal if he could also speak at the graduation and she agreed. This was the chancellor’s sixth and final graduation and he said it was his favorite, but also the “most difficult to talk at.” He said:

I don’t often get invited to talk at graduations where the school is phased out. But this one was different. What was different about it was I was at a panel at Harvard Law School where I’d gone, run by the black alumni association, talking about education. And four then-juniors from Bayard Rustin called me out and wanted to discuss the whole question of school phase out and closure and what it meant for them and for the schools. Those four students made a huge impression on me and they’re in the graduating class today.

…Going through a school in transition, graduating from a school in transition, has its own challenges. Each one of you navigated those challenges and I think it speaks volumes of you and all the people here, your families, your loved ones, your teachers, your administrators, that you were able to stay focused on the things that mattered.

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