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The Phone Calls That Ask, “What Happened To Tilden?”

For several years, when the phone rang in my classroom, I instructed students not to answer it. “They’re not calling for us,” I’d explain.

At first this was an annoyance. Today, it reminds me of the complexity of working in the ever-changing landscape of schools in New York City: in my case, of the hubris that comes with being a founding staff member of something “new” in something old, and then fighting to defend that new thing against something newer.

My classroom was a former administrative office of Samuel J. Tilden High School, which had been converted from a classroom a few years earlier to accommodate the co-location of several new public high schools, including my school, the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School. This phone line remained, months and years after Tilden graduated its final class in 2010, the phone number for Samuel J. Tilden High School.

When students weren’t in the classroom and I was able to answer the phone, often it was Tilden alumni calling for transcripts, or former employees seeking references. I did my best to provide callers with phone numbers I had been given to direct such calls, but these conversations were never short, which is why I only took them when I wasn’t teaching. After I provided the numbers, callers would usually ask, “What happened to Tilden?”

The short answer is it began to phase out in 2007.

But there’s a longer, more important answer that I didn’t know  when I started teaching in 2007 at Kurt Hahn, one of the new schools that opened on the Tilden Educational Complex. I was new to the job, and new to the politics of education. I came months after the protests and decades after the school opened. I didn’t know Tilden’s history; I didn’t know how important a school’s history is.

In 2009, curious about the place and interested in learning more about the inner workings of Wikipedia, I worked with a group of students to examine news clippings about Tilden archived in the Brooklyn Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library. I suspected students would take great interest in the lives of the thousands of students who occupied the same seats and rooms years and decades prior.

Together, we began to uncover Tilden’s history and found it mirrored many of the themes students would learn about in their U.S. history classes. We published our findings on Wikipedia.

Samuel J. Tilden High School opened in 1929 and for over the next 80 years, it served immigrant communities from East Flatbush, Canarsie, Brownsville, and East New York.  School athletic record banners and academic honor society placards that still adorn the gymnasiums and hallways reflect the initially Jewish and Italian and more recently West Indian student populations. Tens of thousands of alumni call Tilden alma mater, and hundreds of educators have spent parts of their careers there.

We learned that in 1935, the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, added not only new a gymnasium and stadium, but also a mural that is still in the auditorium today. During the 1940s, students raised money to purchase bonds to support the war effort. In the 1950s student clubs and teachers were accused of communism, and all graduating seniors had to pledge a loyalty oath in order to receive a diploma.

The 1960s and 1970s saw dramatic demographic changes in the surrounding community. As the nation struggled with racial equality and integration, so did Tilden. Tilden created specialized honors academies to attract students and achieve racial diversity. Instead, early school choice policies continued segregation and stratification in the school district.

Student reacted most strongly to a yearbook that belonged to a colleague’s mother who had graduated from Tilden. The layout was familiar: senior portraits, team photos, superlatives, and personal inscriptions. Despite the changes evident in news clippings and timelines, we all got the sense that some things don’t change much at all, and that perhaps in some ways the experience of going to high school decades ago was quite similar to going to high school in the same building today.

In the Wikipedia project, we only got this far in Tilden’s history. But the school continued to change in ways that had a big effect on our experience as teachers and students there today.

In 2006, the New York City Department of Education announced that Samuel J. Tilden High School would phase out because of consistently poor student performance. Students, parents, and teachers fought back, but the department’s plan was approved, as have been all of the proposals the city has brought before the Panel for Educational Policy. Three new, smaller schools opened in its place starting the following year.

(Several years later, the new schools graduated their first classes at twice the rate of Tilden High School in its final years. I don’t share that as evidence that the DOE made the right decision, or that small schools are objectively better schools. The department has reoriented itself to promote the success of small schools, and in this policy environment our school and students were able to achieve.)

In 2013, six years after Tilden High School became the Tilden Educational Complex, the department announced plans to add a charter elementary school to the three other schools on our campus. This time, as UFT Chapter Leader for my school, I was among many teachers who worked with students and parents to oppose the proposal, just as students and teachers in 2006 protested our school moving in.

We opposed the plan because we believe it jeopardizes the success and stability we are trying to restore in the  Tilden building. We held rallies, attended meetings, signed petitions, and educated community members. I worked with students to engage in the democratic structures they had learned about in their Participation in Government classes. They met with representatives in Albany and commented at the Panel for Education Policy, but the proposal was approved.

Often, at rallies a chant will break out that asks, “Whose schools?” The crowd will reply vehemently, “Our schools!”  I always cautiously participate in this chant, because it offers only a short, incomplete answer. My students used a variation on this chant at our rallies: “Whose Tilden? Our Tilden!”

Most of my students know no other high school, and I, early in my career, don’t either. It’s easy to develop a deep feeling for a place to which you devote so much of your time and energies, but its a mistake to name this feeling ownership. Instead, students and teachers need to understand that we are stewards.

No space is isolated from its surroundings or immune to change. Tilden, like any high school, has meaning to individuals: it’s an important part of its alumni’s adolescence, a teacher’s career, a community’s history. Schools are public and often sacred spaces. It’s something I want my students and colleagues to know — and it’s something I want the teachers and students at the new charter school moving in to remember as well.

As schools fight back against phase-outs or co-locations it’s easy to develop a sense of animosity among the new and old organizations. But it’s best for all students if every school on Tilden campus is a great place for students to learn and teachers to teach. Helping us remember that there’s a story behind our shared space is part of the new phase of my work as a chapter leader, and the new phase of Tilden’s long, storied history.

Eventually my classroom of 11th graders, which was before that an administrative office, and before that served many different functions, will be used by elementary school students. I wonder, if the phone rings who will be calling, and if someone will pick up?  If someone asks what happened to Tilden? Or Kurt Hahn? What will they say?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.