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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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”