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Low-scoring but not closing, CTE school showcases job training

Just days after their school was spared from closure, students from Manhattan’s High School of Graphic Communication Arts showcased fruits of the school’s longstanding Career and Technical Education program.

Founded as the High School of Printing in 1925, Graphic Communication Arts has offered students hands-on training in photography and visual arts since a time when CTE programs were called vocational schools.

Now, through a workplace learning program funded by the city’s Department of Education and the federal government, dozens of students at the Hell’s Kitchen school are working as interns at private and public sector companies — 16 businesses this fall. More than 50 students also participated in summer internships that ran the gamut from print-production to photography to legal services.

Four of the students are putting their academic-year training in photo and film editing to use at FACES NY, a social services agency that helps at-risk populations with HIV/AIDS prevention. Earlier this year the interns shot and produced a video about HIV awareness, which they are promoting via a Facebook page and a Tumblr blog they maintain for the agency.

The mini-documentary they produced was as much a lesson in professionalism as film editing, according to the three students I met Tuesday, because it required them to talk to peers about sexuality and other difficult subjects.

“It’s done, but we need to go in and re-edit it now: bring the audio levels up, fix the text,” Aziza Ramsay, a senior, said after playing the 8-minute clip — a combination of narration, statistics and interviews with classmates about HIV.

The internships are meant to instill a sense of discipline and responsibility in the students by mirroring college and career expectations, according to Jack Kott, the school’s workplace learning coordinator. The students were selected through an application process at the school, Kott said, and all are paid minimum wage for up to 10 hours of work a week.

Last year more than 100 students from Graphics were able to take paid internships, but budget cuts slashed the number of students able to participate by more than half, according to Lantigua Sime, the assistant principal of CTE and photography.

“So far we’re still getting funding, but there is a lack of support from the DOE, and I don’t know why,” he said. “The Common Core calls for career and college readiness, and that is what we provide. That’s exactly what the federal government wants.”

Graphics was one of nine schools with CTE programs whose poor performance landed them on the city’s preliminary list of 21 high schools that could be closed this year. The school got an F on this year’s progress report, down from a D in 2010, even though its graduation rate rose by 5 percentage points.

Three other schools joined Graphics in escaping closure, but the city has proposed shuttering five schools with CTE programs. Three of them are, like Graphics, among the 33 city high schools fully designated as CTE schools. One of them, Grace Dodge Career and Technical High School, was chosen as a demonstration site when the city announced plans to bolster CTE programs two years ago.

Kott and Sime attributed the school’s new lease on life to the testimony of students and recent alumni who told DOE officials that the extensive work-study programs prepared them for life beyond high school.

“That helped sway the committee to say, “Hey, we really need to take another look to see what’s going on here,'” Kott said. “I don’t think the DOE gives CTE schools enough credit for what they engender.”

The three students said the school was their first choice because of its extensive photography and design course offerings, even though its performance on state assessments is lackluster and they must travel to the West 50th Street building from as far as Kingsbridge in the Bronx and Far Rockaway in Brooklyn. They said the school’s closure would have been a significant blow to students throughout the city who want to receive in-depth arts and technology instruction.

“This is really the only school in the state that offers four years of photography,” said Kianne Martinez, a junior. “A lot of 14-year olds who want to go into this field wouldn’t be able to do that, because most schools only offer photo in senior year, and even then it’s not traditional black and white, it’s just digital.”

Lissy Alcantara, also a junior, said she plans to study psychology and design in college, though how those two disciplines fit together is an open question for her. “I’ll promote you, I’ll promote you,” she said, turning to Aziza, who wants to study film and someday create an arts-focused youth center.