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What I learned from four years of fighting for the city’s ‘scariest’ schools

What makes being a senior at a closing school miserable?

For one thing, students at so-called “failing” schools are often already struggling in school and facing difficult home lives. Hearing that their schools are going to be closed only confirms the sense of failure many of our poorest, most disenfranchised youth often already feel.

What’s more, given the city’s tradition of co-location, students whose schools are phasing out often have to watch a new school in their building thrive with new books, equipment, and renovated space. Students who remain enrolled in a school as it closes often feel that they might as well give up, which leads to escalating drop-out rates—the single most destructive aspect of the three-and-a-half to four-year closure process.

In this environment, any incentive, from free SAT prep to a new T-shirt, makes a difference, because it can help get a student closer to graduation and further from dropping out.

That’s what the Partnership for Student Advocacy, an organization I started four years go, tried to do, through a combination of advocacy and philanthropy. I founded PFSA four years ago to advocate for students enrolled in New York City’s “worst” schools; every school I worked with was deemed “failing” by the city and faced closure.

I started the program to try to stop schools from closing. Even though none of my own children attend “failing” schools, I was drawn to this work because my husband and I are the adoptive parents of a young black man who faced more hardship, failure, loss, and poverty in his childhood than anyone I’ve ever known. I wanted to do for the thousands and thousands of youth enrolled in “failing” schools what my husband and I did for our son.

Over time, the mission of PFSA became to make the years of closure the best they possibly could be. In other words, we made lemonade out of some really lousy lemons.

Of all of the schools I worked with through PFSA, I worked most closely with Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, a school that will close forever in a few weeks. Funds raised by PFSA provided Columbus seniors with free Kaplan SAT prep and helped cover CUNY college application fees for students who needed financial assistance. PFSA funds also made possible a senior class trip to the Intrepid Museum and paid for T-shirts for the Leadership Seniors, a group of Columbus students committed to serving the community and maintaining good grades.

No one needed an A average to get a T-shirt. We looked for students who had positive school spirit and led by example.

During the summer of 2013, I visited with elected officials in the Bronx to request support for this very special and final group of Columbus seniors—the last and only students at the school during this past school year. Senator Jeff Klein’s office came through with a $14,000 donation and presented it at a fall fundraiser for the school hosted by John Starks, the former New York Knicks player and NBA All-Star. The event and the donation were huge boosts at a critical moment: the start of the very last year of the school.

Those practical efforts to boost morale were one result of really listening to what kind of support the parents, guardians, students, teachers and principals wanted. In my work as an advocate, my goal was always to meet them exactly where they were.

I felt strongly that if I was going to go to the “scariest,” “worst” schools in the system, I’d better not walk into the building judging.

The reward for my humility was an education beyond measure. Intuitively, I knew when I started and know now that beneath the “scary” stuff, the stuff no one wants to witness or believe, exists incredible, magical things.

For example, Lorraine, a Columbus senior with special needs, came out of her shell thanks to her mother’s advocacy, Principal Lisa Fuente’s expertise, and her fierce commitment to students with special needs. Lorraine is on the autism spectrum and defied the odds by not settling for an education in practical life skills—the most that’s expected of many autistic students.

Lorraine graduated Columbus with a Regents diploma and is now in college.

The Columbus dance/step/cheer squad is another example of magic. Each year I’ve been at Columbus I’ve watched them practice and perform, and each year I’m blown away by their talent. Students cannot be part of the squad unless they maintain passing grades, show up for school and never miss practice.

The Columbus squad consistently wins trophies. Many students say they stay in school because of the squad.

Over the past four years, I worked with many schools, including the Bronx Writing Academy, M.S. 22, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Samuel Gompers, the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, and P.S./M.S. 149, and I’m grateful to all the principals who welcomed me into their schools.

As Columbus closes, I’m also wrapping up my work with PFSA. I leave this work knowing I’ve done my best, and while I remain hopeful, I am also concerned.

My dream for the charitable arm of Partnership For Student Advocacy was to replicate the Christopher Columbus Fund in every closing school, but I lack the financial support and some of the skills necessary to realize that dream.

And even though this administration hasn’t tried to close schools and has a very different attitude towards struggling schools from the last administration, I haven’t seen genuine efforts to support struggling schools and their students in a meaningful way.

The problems I was tackling aren’t solved. I hope they won’t be ignored.

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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.

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