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As closure looms, Columbus teachers plan curriculum revamp

Tamjid Chowdhury, this year’s valedictorian of Christopher Columbus High School, said in his graduation speech that the fight to save his school from closing had ironically provided some of his favorite memories.

“It was one time I was awed by the sense of unity in the school,” he said of the rallies.

For teachers and staff at the Bronx school, another year under the threat of closure has ended with stories of coming together to improve.

The unity extended beyond protests at public meetings. Without anyone asking them to, a group of teachers at the school spent the year huddling together to redesign the school’s curriculum.

“We knew if anything good was going to come out of this year, we would have to generate it, and we would have to execute it,” said Christine Rowland, an English teacher who also works for the UFT.

City officials tried to close Columbus this year and last year, and they want Columbus phased out by 2014 to open a new school in the building. Teachers have tried to save the school multiple times by rallying behind efforts to convert Columbus into a charter school, and Columbus remains at the center of the lawsuit filed by the teachers union and the NAACP to stop school closures.

“It’s a really big blow to our psyche,” said Larry Minetti, an art teacher who has taught at Columbus for 16 years.

Regardless, a group of new and veteran teachers say they have been spending unpaid time developing a new curriculum, and will continue to plan together over the summer while pushing ahead with plans for September.

The eight teachers met weekly throughout the year to work on a curriculum based on the book “Understanding by Design.” The teachers mapped out chunks of curriculum and taught them in their own classrooms, integrating group presentations and video into the lessons.

Rowland (who has written for Gotham Schools) says that the plan is to roll the program out to the entire school next year.

Vjosa Nikci, a first-year teacher who was a member of the curriculum group, said that those discussions helped her create effective lessons. Partly because of that support, she isn’t looking to be anywhere else in September despite her fragile job security at Columbus.

“I’ve been printing, collecting books already. I want to stick it out and be there,” she said.

Of course, Columbus has dozens of teachers, and only a few were directly involved in the curriculum redesign. English teacher Richard Acoleo said that many teachers decided not to stay directly involved in that working group because they thought they were already doing similar things in their classrooms.

Although Fuentes called the year “a great opportunity for professional development,” the school’s 2010-11 quality review listed its curriculum design and professional development as “underdeveloped,” the lowest possible assessment. The school earned a D on its 2009-10 progress report.

An hour in Fuentes’ office on one of the last days of school gave a glimpse of what she’s struggling against. When one student missed passing a Regents exam by a couple of points, Fuentes gave him a hug. (“We just cry with them,” she explained.) Another student only got a 44 out of 100 on the English Language Arts Regents exam, but Fuentes saw that as a cause for celebration. (“He’s only been in the country for five months.”) She spoke of students with their own children, students coming out of jail, and students who were killed during the year.

Columbus also did not receive any of the federal grant money that other struggling schools have had at their disposal this year, though it was eligible to, because the city chose not include Columbus on its list of recommended schools.

Some numbers are more promising: Columbus’ four-year graduation rate rose by 5.7 percentage points, to 41.6 percent, last year.

Kahlia Hylton, who graduated from Columbus on June 24 and is headed to Hofstra University to study nursing, described another hurdle. She estimated that 20 percent of Columbus students did little or no work at school—though a lot of those were students who spoke no English or had already been in jail for a number of years.

As for her own teachers, “They pushed us. They interacted with students more this year,” she said.

Another graduate, Jabarie Broomes, said that a persistent problem was sophomore and juniors using the vague idea of the school closing to justify not doing work all year.

“They’d say, ‘If the school’s gonna close, why put the effort in?’” he said.

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