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For just a second, my knees buckled…

December 7, 2009 pm31 10:23 pm

At the UFT Executive Board tonight, I wanted to ask about showing solidarity for closing schools, but during the open mike I’d heard Nick Licari from Norman Thomas say that the DoE came to his school today, to announce they planned to close it. I didn’t know that.

So before my question, I asked something else: which schools did they announce they were closing today?  (there was nothing on Gotham Schools when I checked)  Strange, there was a little scramble. Evelyn DeJesus, Manhattan Borough Rep was going to answer, but she only had Manhattan. Finally Leo Casey, HS Vice President, came to the microphone behind the dais. He would recite the list from memory.

  • Columbus
  • Global Enterprise

I was already having trouble keeping up. Exhale slowly.

  • New Day
  • Norman Thomas
  • Choir Academy

What happened to four a day? I lost track

  • Beach Channel

Audible gasp from the crowd. Probably not the Chapter Leaders from closing schools who had come to speak, but Exec Board members. Dave, the BCHS Chapter Leader is a well-known and well-liked Unity guy. Stand up. He’s always peddling his free Chapter Newsletters at whatever event he comes to. Audible gasp.

  • Paul Robeson
  • …. middle school in Brooklyn. I wasn’t focusing and missed the number (334).
  • And didn’t hear the last. (Metropolitan Corporate Academy)

I moved away from the mike, shook my head a bit. Moved back to ask about organizing solidarity. I started a speech, sort of, and Mendel stopped me. I nodded ok, or said ok, don’t rightly recall which, and as I tried to continue, my lips couldn’t quite get a word out, and for a second, my knees buckled, just a little. I think Michael said “it’s ok” and motioned that I should take a breath.

—   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   —

In 1997 I began my Board of Ed career as a substitute teacher, at Columbus HS. The APO, Gerry Ambrosio, liked me (I showed up) and used me to cover math and science classes (my two license areas).

A math teacher was suspended, and the acting AP or Coordinator, who cares about the title, of mathematics, Michael Contente, plugged me into the slot. I had four miserable weeks, trying to teach, and getting more than nothing, but not much more, done. I remember those 4 classes (2 were a 7/8 split). I think I was in 437 for the semi-double, 439 for the late period single (very low attendance. I remember a boy named Malik who was small and quiet, and a boy named James who was tall and quiet, and Edwin something or other who the other kids called No-A__ Edwin” and Erika Acosta, and there were only 10 regulars in a repeater class of 25 or 30, and I can still see the faces. The midday class was in 448, where I had my first visible problem – a kid tossed some of the red striped Amscos out the window while I “taught.” I remember a girl named Natasha, and a boy whose last name was Berisha, but there were more in there. It was mostly a quieter room.  The split classes were not repeaters, they were freshmen, and they were tough. I could reel off a fistful of names from each… but the easiest would be Charlyn and Crystal, who used each other’s names and were impossible and made some days awful. That was May 1997. I now see Charlyn fairly regularly; we smile, chat and say hi.

I joined the UFT while I was still a sub, and signed my COPE card. Columbus stopped calling (ie, Tony Brito stopped calling) and told me just to show up each day. And they hired me for the Fall.

I have such mixed emotions about the place. They gave me, to start, horrible classes. And they never followed rotation in anything close to the spirit of the contract. There was an old-boy network, west of chester, if you know what I mean, and I was not in it. On the other hand, there are people in that building who taught me to teach – who took a reasonably intelligent (I say kid but really) young adult, with no presence, and turned me into a pretty good math teacher.

At first, I couldn’t handle a classroom. I couldn’t stand the kids. Those two things, they changed pretty much together. By the end I adored some of my classes, and liked the others. And it was good to feel liked, to feel needed in return.

I became a UFT Delegate at Columbus. And a deputy chapter leader. I fought in a math war while I was there, and won.

By the end, I liked the kids (mostly) and the teachers (well, more than half), but I watched the safety incidents rise, listened to a principal avoid responsibility (“my hands are tied”), and looked closely at the UFT Committee with only one 25 period/wk teacher, that wasn’t willing to take him on. I helped my best friend transfer, and then, the following year, I transferred as well.

Three reactions:  Senior teacher: Good move.  Student who adored me: I knew you’d leave us! (I still cringe).  Principal:  Just never tell anyone you came from Columbus. (No, Gerry, sorry)

—   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   — —   —   —   —   —   —

So here I am, UFT Exec Board. I’ve been out of Columbus for eight and a half years. And it still feels like I got the wind knocked out of me. How about teachers who got the bad news last week? Or today? Chapter Leaders from three closing schools showed up, and I’ll discuss what they said some other time, but each made a clear, passionate appeal. Could not have been easy. I applauded each.

My question was about organizing solidarity from other schools. I managed to ask it.

Please, please, those of you in schools that are safe, for now. Understand, at least a little, what these teachers are going through. I know there are a lot of schools that will be looking for help, and I know it may be tough to help them all. But some. Offer to help make phone calls, or come to a demonstration, or carry petitions. Do something. Let them know we are with them.

There is nothing many of us can offer, exept solidarity. And there is no less we should offer.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. preaprez permalink
    December 8, 2009 pm31 12:54 pm 12:54 pm


  2. L. F permalink
    December 9, 2009 am31 1:27 am 1:27 am

    Phase-out of Christopher Columbus High School

    The Department of Education is proposing the phase-out of the Christopher Columbus High School, a high school in the Bronx that currently serves students in grades 9-12. Under this proposal, the school would stop accepting new ninth grade classes starting in September 2010.

    Columbus’ graduation rate is low:
    In 2007-08, the graduation rate was 36.9%.

    In 2008-09, the graduation rate increased slightly to 40.3%, still 20 points below the citywide average of 60%.

    First-year credit accumulation is also low:
    In 2007-08, only 48% of first-year students accumulated 10 or more credits.

    In 2008-09, that figure increased slightly to 49.4%.

    Demand for the school is low:
    Columbus is a zoned school, but only 11% of students zoned for the school attend it. Just 46% of the students attending Columbus are zoned for the school.

    Columbus received a D on the 2008-09 Progress Report, down from a C in 2006-07 and 2007-08.

    The closing of Christopher Columbus High School (CCHS) conjures mixed feelings. If only for nostalgia, it saddens me that my alma mater is being phased out. However, when I reflect on my experiences as a high school student, I have to admit, candidly and unabashedly — this is long overdue.

    My tenure at Christopher Columbus High School from 1998-2001 was pockmarked by an environment of over-crowdedness, scarce resources, low academic expectations, poor teacher quality and high student attrition rate. There was only one college advisor yet two sergeants from the U.S military actively recruiting students for service. The message I received in high school was clear: we’ll prepare you for war, but not for college.

    Of the estimated 700 students that should have graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 2001, I was one of 297 that did. Largely due to the fact that I was a part of the college bound, Math and Science, track. I was also 1 of 14 to attend the University of Vermont through a college pilot program.

    To be fair, my high school experience wasn’t all bleak. I had three notable teachers: Mr. Hubbs, Mr. Fisher and Mr. Molloy — one of which has started his own public high school in New York City — that cultivated an insatiable appetite for learning in their classrooms.

    Unfortunately, they were the exceptions.

    I’m less damning of the teachers that were incessantly absent, verbally abusive or just apathetic and more critical, on a macro-level, of a system that passively allows for the aforementioned teachers (and conditions) to exist. It has now become a philosophical “chicken or the egg” question: were the teachers inherently disengaged and ineffective or did they become that way over time? Perhaps a more productive inquiry would be: which schools are attracting, supporting and retaining quality teachers and how? Which could be followed with another equally important question: which schools are educating students well and how? There are many salvageable lessons — and countless questions — to be gleaned from this situation. As CCHS and other New York City schools are phased out, reorganized, parsed into “smaller” schools or privitized, it is my hope that their successors do not succumb to a similar fate.

    — L. F

    I never forgot my humbling experience at CCHS. After college I returned to the Bronx, New York as a public school teacher via Teach For America. In May, I will graduate with a Master’s degree in education from Columbia University’s Teachers College and continue my path as a champion of education equity.

    • December 9, 2009 am31 2:06 am 2:06 am


      we were there at the same time. I remember you, though I would have never taught your classes… I’ll get back to that.

      While you were at Columbus, the Bronx was closing high schools. Monroe was already gone. Morris went, and Taft and Roosevelt. And the mini-schools that were “phasing in” as those schools phased out had capped enrollment. And the extra kids came to Columbus. Not randomly chosen. Students with attendance problems, academic difficulty, behavior issues. The school was grossly overcrowded, but let’s avoid passive voice: The Bronx High School superintendency grossly overcrowded Columbus. They overtaxed the Special Ed Department. They overwhelmed the deans. You saw a mess, but it was a created mess.

      Now, the administration and some of your teachers made it much worse. One thing (I take this personally, as it happened to me), they matched the weakest, newest teachers with the weakest, most difficult students. An observer walking by those classes (and there were many) would have wondered who would leave the school first. I don’t know that it was intentional. They were working on the converse: keeping the classes with you in them for themselves and their friends.

      If you want to continue, e-mail is better. Naming names would get ugly, fast.

      I do think (positive name story here) that I sat in on one of your classes with Fisher once – he was teasing a boy about the benefits of going to college in a post-Griswold v Connecticut world…

    • December 9, 2009 am31 2:10 am 2:10 am

      I distracted myself, and didn’t finish my point:

      Columbus’ difficulties when you were there were mostly the result of external manipulation (the Supe used the weakest, most disruptive kids as a weapon against several schools, including Columbus. Both the kids and the schools are victims in this story.) Columbus’ internal politics made things worse. But there is nothing in this story that was not fixable.


      • L. F permalink
        January 18, 2010 pm31 4:49 pm 4:49 pm


        Thank you for contextualizing how CCHS failed. Who do you hold accountable for CCHS’ failure when it’s so textured and multi-layered?


        • January 18, 2010 pm31 5:37 pm 5:37 pm

          I know it’s the TFA training, and not you, but you are missing something: Columbus did not fail.

          The population changed to some of the neediest kids in the City. And CCHS, at first couldn’t cope, but has since brought in programs and attitudes to help the new population.

          Resources are distributed more equitably. And reasonable goals, including graduating kids with the understanding that much of this population requires more than 4 years, are being met.

          But “CCHS failed”? That is just not accurate.

  3. James permalink
    January 18, 2010 pm31 3:24 pm 3:24 pm

    I taught English at Columbus from 1998 to 2006. When I started teaching it was tough but I loved going to school everyday. When other schools in the Bronx began to close the school changed tremendously. Along with the culture, the level of students declined. Not only could many of the students not read or write, but they didn’t want to be in school. The administration was full of apathy. We were doomed.

    I share many of your memories. I hated teaching repeater courses because students rarely showed up. I had a consistent 12, but it was a different 12 each day. I think they formed a rotation so no one completed all of the work. One student complained about receiving a 40. I explained to him he got a 40 because I couldn’t give a two.

    The BOE, and now DOE, have created schools that are DOA. They have created a system of two tiers. If you are in the top, you will succeed. If you are in the bottom, you fail. They will keep recycling the failing schools based on the federal “program of the year” that will bring in more money. The money will then be squandered on enlarging the bureaucracy by hiring non educators to tell us how to educate.

    I left the system and now live in Texas where my fiance teaches kindergarten. The system here still has too many politicians in the mix, but kids are held accountable. I miss the Bronx and I miss teaching at Columbus. We really did change lives each and every day. The kids didn’t burn people out. The system did.

    • L. F permalink
      January 18, 2010 pm31 4:39 pm 4:39 pm


      I have many fond memories of the English Department — with the exception of the Chair, Mrs. Rieman — two of my favorite teachers taught English. During my three years at CCHS, three teachers made a significant impact on my academic experience: Mr. Molloy, Mr. Fisher and Mr. Hubbs.

      While I think MBA’s, JD’s and EdD’s have a place in the education landscape, too often their voices eclipse the perspectives of teachers that are on the ground. Teaching is a unique profession in the sense that “experts” in the field can come from almost any sector. Teachers need to be brought to the forefront of national discourse instead of vilified by the media, politicians, etc. We need teachers as researchers and teachers as policy makers.

      To be completely transparent I entered the classroom after a 5-week crash course over the summer. We wouldn’t trust a doctor that was licensed after five weeks of training or a lawyer or engineer, yet, this is often the easiest (and quickest) route into the classroom for aspiring teachers.

      CCHS Alumna (1998-2001)

      • December 8, 2011 pm31 9:41 pm 9:41 pm

        Mr Hubbs was one of my favorites as well!

  4. L. F permalink
    January 18, 2010 pm31 6:04 pm 6:04 pm

    I’m not sure how you operationalize the term failure, but by the measure of graduation rates: CCHS comes up short. In 2001, CCHS had dismal graduation rates. If the graduation rate increased to roughly 40% in 2008 — though a relative gain, it’s still a failure. If a 40% graduation rate isn’t failure, what would you call it? What metrics are you using? Lastly, would you send your child[ren] to CCHS?

    • January 18, 2010 pm31 7:37 pm 7:37 pm

      I suggest you read what the people at CCHS themselves say

      You are quoting a 4-year graduation rate. Columbus graduates many students in more time than that.

      Columbus accepts among the academically weakest group of high school students in the City. Their 8th grade scores are very low, 90%+ below grade level, their 8th grade attendance is weak, the proportion with IEPs is high, and among those the proportion who are in self-contained classes is high. Is there a school that is doing a better job with a comparable population?

      That last is a real question. And I don’t think you should sit in judgment without an answer. Actually, I don’t think you are in a position to be sitting in judgment at all.


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