closing time

As Columbus closes, its last class celebrates a bittersweet graduation

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.”

Closed Schools 2014

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.

Students take photos before graduating from the closing Christopher Columbus High School.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students take photos before graduating from the closing Christopher Columbus High School.

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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What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.