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After night schools faded, Bronx high school opened its own

At 4 p.m., long after most city high school students have gone home, a group of Bronx students trudge into two warm, sleepy classrooms and begin their school day.

For most of them, graduation is a long-shot. Some are 17 years old and have no more than six credits completed; they’ll need 44 to get a diploma. Others are new mothers or have to hold day jobs that make going to regular day-time classes impossible.

For its students on the brink of dropping out, Christopher Columbus High School has an unusual program: an after-hours school for its most at-risk students.

In many New York City high schools, when a student seems irrevocably off course — he’s failed so many classes that there’s no way he’ll graduate in four years — there’s a standard response.

If he’s over 17.5 years old, he might enroll in one of the city’s Young Adult Borough Centers, known as YABC programs, which offer classes at night for students who are a few credits shy of graduation. Alternatively, a counselor might recommend that he switch to a transfer school, where younger students who are falling behind are pushed toward a diploma.

Four years ago, administrators at Columbus decided that neither of these options were a good fit for its most difficult students.

YABCs only take students after they’d unsuccessfully plodded through five years of high school — a requirement that most struggling Columbus students didn’t meant. And what few transfer schools existed were often overcrowded. Instead, Principal Lisa Fuentes and then-Assistant Principal Roberto Hernandez (now principal of Grace Dodge High School, where he runs similar programs) created the Renaissance Program with a $200,000 grant from the city.

Unlike traditional night schools, which largely died out after YABCs opened, the Renaissance Program only serves Columbus students and a few students from the other small schools in the building.

Designed for high school juniors and seniors who are on the brink of dropping out, the program has about 70 students who attend class from 4 to 7:30 p.m. They take two 90 minute classes every night, pausing for a “lunch break” in between.

“Level-wise, work effort-wise, they’re all over,” Markise Brown, one of two program coordinators, told me during my visit this week. “For some the goal is college. For others the goal is truthfully to find out where they want to go. We’re trying to build adults.”

Brown said he thought of transfer schools as a “dumping ground” for students that high schools consider a liability. Unlikely to graduate in four-years, if they stay on the schools’ books, they’re likely to bring the graduation rate down.

But Columbus, which the city already plans to close because of its low graduation rate, is unusual in that it doesn’t seem preoccupied with these consequences. The Renaissance Program’s two coordinators said they were proud to have graduated 22 seniors last year, even if that was only half of the seniors in the group.

Visiting the program, it’s easy to see why they would be. By 4 p.m., when class begins, some of the students have already done a full day’s work. They share the same psychic space inhabited by any office worker at this hour: they need a cup of coffee, or four. They participate and answer questions, but their attention spans are 15 to 20 seconds long. When a fight breaks out on the field outside, they don’t think twice about running to the windows mid-lesson to watch the action.

In a Living Environment class, teacher Michael Pearson paced the aisles, fighting for students’ attention and keeping a close eye on two boys who nodded in and out of naps. At the same time, he tried to keep up with several girls who had the answer to every question.

“Who’s in the first trophic level?” he asked, calling on the comatose boy in front of me. The student raised his head to give the correct answer, “producers,” and then passed out again.

“It may seem frustrating to work with them,” Pearson said after class. “But eventually they get it.”

English was next and the teacher, Beverely Stuart, was preparing the students for the Regents exam, which is next Tuesday. While she asked the class to name the subject and main character of a short story, two students in the back carried out a conversation and two girls in the front passed a baby photo between them.

Brown and Renaissance’s other coordinator, Lissa Thomas-Rodriguez, try to cut into the side conversations and behavior problems by walking into the classrooms every ten or fifteen minutes. When they did, backs straightened, but only until the door closed behind them.

“They think they’re hardcore, but they’re not compared to the first group of students we had,” Thomas-Rodriguez said. That year, the program graduated 12 students.

Columbus has two gender segregated programs for younger, at-risk students that feed into Renaissance: Boys 2 Men and Women Empowerment. Students in these programs take classes during the day.

“I just try to give them what I would have wanted from school,” Brown said. “I wanted that firm hand.”