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Bronx school tries to stay positive about losing middle grades

The principal of a Bronx secondary school is calling the city’s plan to cut her middle grades a blessing in disguise.

Across the city, school communities and closure opponents are gearing up to protest this year’s round of city proposals to close or truncate 25 schools. But at the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, one of the six principals whose secondary schools could lose their middle grades is raising a white flag.

In some ways, it’s easy for ASE Principal Zenobia White to accept that her school will shrink by three out of seven grades over the next two years. She doesn’t have to start thinking about looking for another job, as she would if the school had been proposed to phase out completely. And her job could get easier once she has fewer students to move forward and a smaller staff to develop and observe.

But losing her middle school also means giving up on a vision to usher neighborhood students through their entire adolescence at a single school. Her hope was that by meeting students early in their academic careers, ASE teachers would be able to have a sustained impact on their performance, and the high school would avoid a common pitfall — enrolling students who are performing far below grade-level.

“When you have a middle school, you’re always making choices,” White said when I met with her at the Wakefield school building this week. “I’m a person who wants to support every last child, every last initiative, but the reality is it’s just literally impossible to do that when you have so many things going on at once.”

Five years of logistical fits and starts undermined the vision, she said, citing unexpected budget reductions, two forced moves that caused some students to leave and resulted in the school being sited 5 miles north of its original location, and a slew of muggings at a nearby subway stop.

She also said the demands of running both a middle and a high school simply proved more difficult to juggle than she expected when she opened the school in 2005, with the support of the College Board, after completing New Leaders for New Schools, one of the city’s principal training programs.

“I want every student to take at least two Advanced Placement courses. I want them to have an internship before they leave here. I want to make sure that they are overall confident that they can compete when they go out into the world,” White said. “That’s a razor focus that I would love to have had in every aspect of the middle school life, but it just couldn’t happen.”

ASE’s middle school received a D on its most recent report card. The high school also got a D but will remain open, according to the Department of Education’s plans.

As the school gets smaller — the city’s plans have it losing a grade a year for three years — White said the school would be able to focus more on preparing students for state Regents exams and college.

In the meantime, White said she and teachers plan to redouble their efforts to analyze students’ test results to figure out where they most need help, and to create a mock progress report next year so they aren’t surprised again when the city’s is released. School network officials would also begin meeting with her once a week to map out a strategy for improvement. White is also forming an advisory board of community members, whose network she hopes to tap into to create internships for students down the line.

“In one sense academically we’re pushing the rigor, but in the other sense we’re going back to basics around testing strategies and those sort of things that we may not have focused on in the past as much, but realize the importance of now,” she said. “We now know that we’re being held accountable based on the data.”

They’re also inviting some of the high school’s top students into the middle school classrooms and part-time teacher aides and mentors. Kallicharan Balkaran, an eighth-grade English teacher, said having a junior or senior is his classroom is a learning experience both for the middle schoolers, who might otherwise find the high school students intimidating, and the upperclassmen who must revisit concepts that serve as foundations for their current courses.

One of those students, Amanda Perry, a junior, said she enrolled at ASE in middle school and stuck with the school because it felt like a tight-knit family—a concept that was reinforced when Balkaran invited her to mentor younger students in his class.

“It’s easy to learn stuff because the teacher has the opportunity to focus on you,” Perry said. “You have a relationship with them, and they stress the importance of understanding what you learn.”

Balkaran called news of the phase-out proposal sobering, but said he is “viewing it in a positive light.”

“We’ve always had high expectations here and we will continue to have high expectations,” he said. “There will be discussions around data, planning, new initiatives, working hard. These kids deserve to read and write on grade level so we will work even harder just to prove everyone wrong, though the city will close the school if that’s what they decide to do.”

Julieta Arroyo, a middle-school math teacher, agreed, even though teachers at schools that are phased out frequently find themselves in the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of position-less teachers who are shuffled from school to school as weekly substitutes.

“In spite of the decision that they’re giving us, we still have to work hard. And we tell the students, don’t be bothered about the decision—we are still here to teach you. We are still student-centered,” she said.

But Arroyo said she is holding out hope that the middle school might get a second chance, even though the Panel for Educational Policy has never rejected a city proposal to close or shrink a school.

“The decision might reverse,” she said, “if they see that we are working very hard.”

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