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Turnaround seen as threat to Smith's shrinking career programs

Plans to close and reopen Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School using turnaround, the controversial school reform model, could leave this year’s juniors without state certification in the fields they have been studying for the past three years.

For the students and their teachers, Smith’s turnaround hearing marked a return to the front lines of a battle they thought they won two years ago, when the school was narrowly spared from closure.

After initially proposing to phase the school out, the city opted to keep Smith open but downsize it by eliminating all of its career and technical programs but one: automotive technology. Five other CTE programs — in carpentry, electrical engineering, ventilation and air conditioning, plumbing, and pre-engineering — would close over time.

This year’s juniors would be the last to earn certification in those programs, entitling them to a license to work in some industries immediately after graduation. The school has continued to maintain a staff to help them through their career coursework.

But under turnaround, the school that replaces Smith will constitute a new staff, drawing from Smith’s faculty roster and elsewhere to find teachers to meet its needs.

If multiple teachers choose not to reapply for their jobs or are not selected during the hiring process — a conceivable outcome because the replacement school might not want to hire teachers for programs that would not exist after one year — Smith’s career programs could be severely affected. State certification for CTE programs requires schools to offer particular courses and have teachers with certain credentials.

Department of Education officials told attendees at last night’s closure hearing that it is not guaranteed that Smith’s replacement school would be certified to offer the technical programs. But the officials — who included the department’s former top CTE executive, Gregg Betheil — repeatedly assured families that students “should” still be able to receive CTE diplomas in coming years. They said they are encouraging teachers to gain certification to teach across disciplines so that no single program has a shortfall of qualified teachers and that they expected the state to sign off on the programs again.

That information was not comforting to Robert Matthew, a junior in the electrical engineering program who said he has felt called to the trade since he was a toddler watching his father, an electrician, at work.

“What about my CTE diploma that I’ve worked so hard for? … What are we supposed to do with the 14 spare credits?” Matthew asked at the hearing. “I can withstand bullying. But I’ve never been able to tolerate someone taking away my dreams.”

In recent years the city has worked to improve vocational offerings by shuttering CTE programs in shrinking industries and struggling schools and opening new ones in fields where jobs are likely to be plentiful. In the same January State of the City address where Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans, he vowed to further refocus the city’s CTE efforts. Today, the mayor is slated to tout a new school that will train students to program computer software.

Smith’s restructuring was part of the city’s shifting CTE priorities. In 2010, department officials cited the school’s partnerships with several local car dealerships of several car companies and its prominence as the Bronx’s only school with a large automotive program when they decided to keep that program open. Now, the department is waiting for state officials to certify the automotive program and a new collision repair program.

Smith has been struggling for well over a decade. The state identified it as one of New York’s lowest-performing schools in 1999, and last year the school had one of the highest rates of weapons possession.

Thomas Newton, a special education English teacher and a United Federation of Teachers delegate, said turnout to the hearing was low — fewer than 50 people attended — in part because it was held the day after spring break, and many students did not show up at school earlier in the day. He spent the evening next to an empty seat that was reserved for a representative of the Community Education Council for District 7.

Newton was joined in front of the auditorium by principals from two schools that recently opened in Smith’s building: Matthew Williams of Bronx Design and Construction Academy and Lucinda Mendez of Bronx Haven High School, which enrolls transfer students who have fallen behind at other high schools.

Mendez offered a tempered defense of Smith. “I just want to state the obvious: that a school is more than a name, it’s more than a number, it’s more than a building,” she said. “A school is a community of individuals, including staff and students who come together daily to grow, learn, support, thrive, comfort, etc. It’s a home away from home for most if not for all.”

Mendez added, “Smith is a community with deep roots. They go as far back as some of the teachers having been students at the school. I hope that students who come back to the school will be able to recognize peoples’ faces. Because whatever changes you make, if that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Smith’s longtime principal, Rene Cassanova, would have to be replaced under the rules of the turnaround model. Cassanova did not speak during the hearing and declined to be interviewed. But teachers said the department had already introduced them to a proposed new principal.

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