As they waited for their graduation ceremony to begin, the seniors of Christopher Columbus High School looked like any other graduating class: they clicked selfies, adjusted their caps and gowns, and joked as they waited to be called into the auditorium.
But these 75 students had a special distinction: they made up the last class to ever graduate from Columbus.
Columbus High School wasn’t alone. Three years after the Panel for Educational Policy voted to phase it out in meetings filled with tears and protests, Columbus become one of 22 city schools to close this year, a vestige of the Bloomberg administration’s plan to replace larger, struggling schools with smaller ones.
As the schools shrank, teachers and students left to look for more class offerings or a more stable environment. That left the remaining bunch with an even tighter-knit school community that grew closer in the final push.
At Jamaica High School, that community was especially small. About 20 students graduated last week.
Sarah Kissoon, a graduating senior at Jamaica, said she spent the school’s last few years worried about course offerings and how attending a closing school would look to colleges. (Kissoon, salutatorian, is attending Brooklyn College in the fall.)
“We did feel like a stepchild at first,” Kissoon said about her freshman year. “But knowing that the teachers are there supporting us made it feel a little better.”
More than 140 schools have closed since the Bloomberg administration began phasing them out early in his tenure. Some of this year’s closures, including Jamaica and Columbus high schools, were once among the city’s most well-known schools, both for their place in neighborhood lore and, more recently, for their struggles to graduate students.
In 2009-10, Jamaica and Columbus graduated students in four years at a rate of 50 and 47 percent, respectively. The citywide average that year was 65 percent.
City officials said the only way to improve outcomes for students was to start fresh with smaller, often specialized schools, a tactic that the teachers union criticized for displacing teachers. In the meantime, as they closed, the older schools would be able to provide more support to students, department officials said.
For those who stayed, even as teachers left and students transferred out, the promise of more individual attention was a reality. Baptiste’s English class at Columbus, for example, was very small.
“There were three people in my class,” Baptiste said.
Still, there was no ignoring the realities of a dwindling school. In its last year, Jamaica occupied the basement. Columbus had what its principal called “a little horseshoe” of classrooms and offices in a corner of the building. Staff members worried about how they’d carry students through to graduation with passing grades and minimal disruption.
Some of the schools faced additional hurdles in their last years – including the havoc of Superstorm Sandy for Beach Channel High School in the Rockaways, and a principal battling cancer last year, in the case of Columbus in the Bronx.
In many ways, the recent past of Christopher Columbus High School, in particular, maps the history of reforms under the Bloomberg administration’s effort to shake-up the city’s high school landscape and jolt graduation rates upward.
Starting in 2003, the Columbus’ honor programs broke off and became separate schools in the same building. The remaining 3,400 students attended classes in shifts, according to the New York Times. At one point, the school had more than 4,000 students, Principal Lisa Fuentes said.
In 2010, the city slated Columbus for possible closure, citing its low graduation rates and failure to meet students’ needs.
During this time, school officials say they didn’t get the help they required. Higher-need students were assigned at disproportionate rates to closing schools across the city, including over-the-counter students who didn’t go through the high school admissions process or who moved to the city late in the year. During Columbus’ first phase-out year, 37 percent of its students were over-the-counter, as were 31 percent of Jamaica’s students. At similar schools, only 14 percent arrived that way, according to a report.
In a last-ditch effort to save the school, Columbus unsuccessfully tried to convert into a charter school before preparing for the phase-out.
“We didn’t accept it, so we starting fighting to keep it open,” said Fuentes, a graduate of the school’s class of 1977.
As the phase-out progressed, a number of smaller schools opened in its place at what is now called the Christopher Columbus Educational Campus. There are now six other schools in the cavernous building: the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science; Pelham Preparatory Academy; Astor Collegiate Academy; the closing Global Enterprise High School; and two new schools, Bronxdale High School and the High School of Language and Innovation.
The city is no longer focused on creating small schools and the de Blasio administration is cool to closing schools, too—meaning the current composition of the Columbus building is likely to hold.
Meanwhile, as the graduating seniors of Columbus crossed the auditorium stage at Lehman College last week, teachers, students and staff celebrated the end to a tumultuous few years.
Many graduates said they were sad to see their school close. They won’t get to visit old teachers or pop into the principal’s office to say hello in years to come. Instead, it will be filled with hundreds of students in different schools.
But Fuentes is reminded that, now that they’ve graduated, the students will spend more time looking forward than back.
“They are going to miss it,” Fuentes said. “But they are going to forget. They are going to move on.”
This post has been updated to reflect that 22 schools closed in 2014.
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