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At Columbus, students and staff grapple with looming closure

“How many of you plan to go to tutoring?” Lisa Fuentes asked the crowd of Christopher Columbus High School seniors trickling into the first floor auditorium on a recent morning.

As she surveyed the thin show of hands, her voice shook. “Maybe 10? So I put thousands of dollars aside so you can have tutoring, and a handful of you are attending?”

“If you don’t start taking this seriously, this is going to be the worst graduating class of the entire history of Columbus,” she said.

In her nine years as Columbus’s principal, Fuentes has had countless, similarly tough conversations with her senior classes to remind them about uncompleted college applications, looming Regents exams, and missing course credits.

But she said she feels even more urgency this year, because she knows she is running out of time to reach the many students who are failing courses, missing credits, and chronically late to school.

That’s because this year’s crop of seniors is the third-to-last that will ever graduate from Columbus. The school is in the process of being closed because of its low performance, despite valiant efforts to fend off the city’s decision that included hearings, lawsuits, and two attempts at charter school conversion. This year, no new ninth-graders enrolled, and Columbus is scheduled to graduate its last students in 2014. It is now just one of seven schools sharing space in the four-story stone building that once housed it alone.

Fuentes and other teachers said they are cautious not to let the impending closure overshadow instruction. But students say they miss the ninth-grade teachers who no longer have jobs at Columbus, and on several occasions teachers have stepped into Fuentes’s office to cry.

“A lot of my good good teachers have left,” she said. “I hate the term jump ship, because of Columbus … But they told me they didn’t want to wait until the end and risk going into the Absent Teacher Reserve pool,” where teachers who have lost their jobs rove from school to school as substitutes.

Several teachers say they passed up positions at other schools in order to stay at Columbus during its phaseout. Edward Barone, who teaches chemistry, is the most junior science teacher on the staff and expects to be cut loose at the end of the school year.

“I guess I’m concerned about it, but I’m doing the job the best I can,” he said. “I had an opportunity to move to a couple of the small schools in the building. But I felt like I was still good for Columbus. I hope I’m not making the wrong decision.”

Students, too, say they have mixed feelings about sticking by as Columbus turns into a shell of its former self.

Jesse Joseph, 16, a junior, said he came to Columbus to follow in the footsteps of two older brothers. But he said he has been dismayed to see several longtime teachers leave, including Steve Bonica, an earth science teacher who went to Bronxdale High School on the building’s third floor because Bronxdale would have a ninth grade and Columbus would not.

“The teachers I have classes with today say they might not be here, like Mr. Barone,” Joseph added.

He said he would transfer to another school if he could. But he said Columbus’s guidance counselors dissuaded him because the process of transferring would be time consuming, and he might only have the option to transfer to another large, low-performing school.

Zorana Vulevic, 16, has only been at Columbus for two and a half years but is taking extra classes this year so she can graduate in 2012. “This is not a real high school education,” she said. “Health and government had substitutes because the teachers were excessed.”

In its heyday, Columbus was able to offer regular and advanced-placement core subjects and electives in cooking, health, and French. By 2010, the school had lost those electives, along with Advanced Placement science courses, English, math, and language programs. This year, students who want to take advanced courses such as physics must “go upstairs” — shorthand for enrolling in classes offered by other schools at the Columbus campus.

That’s not an option for most students. Fuentes said many of Columbus’s 760 remaining students are not on track to graduate in four years, because of factors such learning disabilities, homelessness, or criminal backgrounds.

Two-third of Columbus students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch, one quarter require special education services, and nearly 20 percent are considered English language learners.

Those proportions are sure to climb as the school continues to accept needy students, even as it grows closer to its final days. This year, nearly 150 students were assigned to the school after classes started. Over-the-counter students are often some of the hardest to teach; many are English language learners or come from low-income families without permanent homes; some arrived in New York City just weeks before the start of school after long interruptions in their formal schooling.

Many principals balk at having their enrollments swollen by hard-to-educate students, but Fuentes said she was eager to accept them, both because they brought with them extra funding and also because she sees Columbus as a refuge for needy students.

“I’m a fool,” she said. “I take them all.”

Barone, who was one of the teachers involved in organizing the school community to defense Columbus, said the school’s closure would take away a vital opportunity for over-the-counter enrollees, particularly new immigrants, to find faculty responsive to their needs.

“We made so much progress with ways to approach this population of students. For them to be throwing that out with the bathwater is a real shame,” he said.

Fuentes said the metrics the city used when deciding that Columbus was too weak to survive didn’t capture many of the school’s successes.

“We believe in our kids and the progress they’re capable of making,” she said. “We really believed we could be successful, with the staff we had.”

Now, as the school and its staff dwindles, some remaining teachers are, like Barone, digging in.

“I feel like we work just as hard as we’ve always worked,” said Kanika Smith, who teaches AP English. “We tell the students, the school is closing, but you’re not. I’m also the coach of the cheer, step and dance team, and the senior adviser, so my goal is to keep the spirit going.”

With 10 years of experience at the school, Smith is one of its least senior teachers, and she expects to be excessed in June. But she is deferring the job hunt until then, she said, both out of a desire to defer the inevitable and out of dedication to her students.

“This building has been ‘closing’ for years,” she said. “I haven’t run away yet.”

But Vulevic, who is taking a leadership elective reserved for the school’s highest-performing students, said most students had set aside a fervor to fight for survival in favor of apathy.

“There’s not much we can do anymore,” she said. “It’s done.”

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