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A city principal who favors change warily prepares for more

Graduating seniors celebrated today inside the Cobble Hill School of American Studies
Graduating seniors celebrated today inside the Cobble Hill School of American Studies

Today was a roller coaster for Kenneth Cuthbert, principal of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn.

At 1 p.m., he stood inside a new basement auditorium he excavated from a former garbage dump and watched more than 100 of his students graduate to shattering cheers. A few hours later, he learned that he might lose his job.

Cobble Hill has been named one of the 34 city schools the state will attempt “turn around” as part of an Obama administration program. The news Cuthbert received this afternoon, in an e-mail message from Chancellor Joel Klein, is that Cobble Hill will undergo the so-called “transformation” model — the less severe model that preserves a school’s teaching staff, but still endangers its principal.

State rules say that all schools on the federal list should lose their principals, but city officials are considering appealing for some principals to stay, and the principals union is pressuring them to save these jobs. So far, Cuthbert doesn’t know where he falls.

“They need to do what’s in the best interest of the children,” he told me this afternoon, after receiving the news. “I will be fine. God sends us here with gifts, talents, and abilities. What are you going to do? You play the hand you’re dealt. We’ve played it for the last several years.”

His mixed feelings reflect the fact that, for the five years that he’s been principal, Cuthbert has seen himself as on a war path to improve the school — and he feels like he’s made important steps. Last year’s four-year graduation rate was 65 percent, up from 42 percent two years before. Since he came, the school has launched several new programs, including a law program that he said is behind increasing enrollment. (Achievement statistics on the school can be found here and here.)

Principal Kenneth Cuthbert (left) on stage at the school
Principal Kenneth Cuthbert (left) on stage at the school

And the people teaching at the school have changed; in 2005 and 2006, more than a quarter of teachers left the school. “There was a new sheriff in town,” Cuthbert told me. “People were leaving.” When I asked if the people who opted out were also the teachers he wanted to go, he nodded.

He also changed the school’s schedule, dividing it into two types of days: professional development-focused Mondays and a different schedule for the rest of the week. Changing the school’s schedule is one of the requirements for “transformation” schools.

One of Cuthbert’s favorite reforms is what he described as a $12 million project to renovate a basement auditorium that had become a dump. The school’s custodian filled six full-sized dumpsters with its contents during the process, Cuthbert told me. The auditorium, now complete with floor-to-ceiling columns painted pink, comfortable fold-down chairs, and a vast stage, was the site of today’s graduation ceremony. Staff pointed to it proudly, calling today special because it was the first graduation the school has seen with that auditorium.

He is now in talks with Community Board 6 to transform the school’s gym, which now includes partial basketball courts obstructed by pillars — despite the fact that its team won a Public School Athletic League championship. (The players sometimes practice on a different court; otherwise, the coach told me, they just dribble around the pillars.)

But the school’s progress wasn’t enough to remove it from the state list. Last year, it earned a B on its city report card, and the school’s overall Regents pass rate continued to hover around 50 percent in math, science, and history.

Faced with more change, Cuthbert first told me: “We’ve done that already. We’ve changed the staff, we’ve changed the programs, we’ve changed the building.”

But later he said he is looking at the transformation as an opportunity. And at least one program required for transformation schools — a new performance pay plan — would be new to Cobble Hill. “It means additional support,” he said. “That’s the way that I read it — as opposed to condemnation, you guys failed, you didn’t turn things around. I interpret it as, ‘Here’s some assistance for you.'”

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