Who closed the Bronx’s high schools? by Lynne Winderbaum
by Lynne Winderbaum, retired ESL teacher, JFK HS, and former Bronx High School UFT District Rep
I wrote an intro piece on the destruction of the large high schools in the Bronx last week – Lynne, a chapter leader than district rep through this process, has much more to say – Jonathan
One day in the early 2000’s the flyers began to appear in all teachers’ mailboxes at Kennedy HS. Headlined “21st Century Grants”, the finer print announcing that the Gates Foundation and other corporate philanthropists were encouraging teachers to imagine a different way of delivering instruction. To “dream” of changing education as it was. In return, they would offer seed money to flesh out the idea and further money down the road if the ideas were judged feasible. Teachers were invited to attend a meeting for further information and the time and place were on the flyer. I surmise that some Kennedy teachers were intrigued by the offer to start a new and different school because BETA, Bronx Theater, and Law & Finance all sprang from Kennedy staff (Marble Hill, now housed at Kennedy was proposed by a group of teachers and an AP from Morris). In addition, Chapter Leaders and principals of six Bronx High Schools were personally asked to attend by the Bronx HS Superintendent, Norman Wechsler, who was interested in pursuing the Gates grants. My principal, Gino Silvestri and I were not asked to attend, probably because we were not playing well at the time. In retrospect, the lack of that invitation probably saved Kennedy from earlier closing as you will read below.
At the time Norman Wechsler took the helm of the Bronx HS Superintendency, there were no schools on the SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) list. Within a short time, there were five. While I in no way blame Dr. Wechsler for this since the demographic, educational, and economic factors that made some Bronx high schools so dismal were already in motion, but it certainly explains the atmosphere in the early 2000s that made the “small school” innovation so attractive. It was a timely gift that could make it seem that “reform” was afoot. Dr. Wechsler produced charts, graphs, and reports touting the educational superiority of the small school. One day as JFK Chapter Leader, I was out with my UFT District Rep. David Shulman. While he made a stop and I remained in the car, he handed me a pile of data supplied by the Bronx Superintendents office and asked me to look at it. It surely made small schools seem like the answer to failing schools.
When the meeting took place to get the “21st Century Grant” process rolling Walton, Columbus, Stevenson, Evander Childs, were among the schools that attended with principals and their UFT Chapter Leaders. The motive for their attendance was to learn about designing their own small schools and the grant process. Attendees I know always maintained that this was the agenda of the meeting. Several years later the Department of Education took the position that by attending the meeting, the principals and Chapter Leaders agreed to the closing of their schools. Eric Nadelstern from the Bronx Superintendent’s office and John Soldini, then UFT VP of Academic High Schools remembered that the intent to close and replace the large high schools with small schools was made clear at that meeting. Others who were there were incredulous at the announcements of intent to close schools because they did not remember the meeting that way.
Of course the SURR schools were ultimately closed by the state. But the Gates grants that led to the closing of the large Bronx high schools was a NYC effort. Christopher Columbus HS fought the attempt to close it down with a vengeance. Teacher Christine Rowland, speaking the language of data that the Department of Education spoke, made an unforgettable presentation at the Department of Education. Randi Weingarten was there, I was there, and fortunately Michelle Cahill of the DOE was there and was receptive. Columbus got a reprieve. When Cahill left, no one was listening anymore. The die was cast. The other schools all were slated for closure.
The process of implementing the small schools was not fixed, it evolved. Initially, in order to get the grant money, there was a very detailed process. A group of staff members, students, parents, and community organizers imagined a themed school, wrote a proposal and presented it in front of a panel of Department of Education and UFT representatives. I was put on many of those panels. Proposals that seemed well-thought out, staffed, and inclusive received seed money. Down the road they had to pass muster with a higher level of sponsors to get the green light and the bulk of the money. The early small schools all came through this process. Most of them were crowded into the schools that attended the grant meeting clearly in an attempt to phase them out. Schools like Kennedy, Truman, and Lehman initially only got one each.
When these schools opened there were immediate problems. So many resources were being poured by New Visions to administer these schools that a selective and advantaged system was being created while the schools that housed them, and the students they served became second-class citizens. So many laptop computers were lavished on the small schools that the principals balked at funding the host schools’ libraries. The faux marble desks rolled in while the old graffitied desks graced the classrooms of the host school. To accommodate mid-day lunch periods for small school students, the host school’s students were scheduled to eat lunch as early as 9:25am. At Stevenson, there was even a separate priority entrance created to allow for small school students to enter more quickly in the morning while the host school students waited on long lines outside. Waivers were granted to allow small schools a two-year exemption on accepting special education students. And even after the waivers expired, the special education students were not the high-needs children displaced to the large high schools. The English Language Learners were not the recent arrivals who were displaced to the large high schools.
Soon, the displacement of high-needs children bore its predictable fruit. The small schools looked like magic institutions with higher graduation rates and fewer disciplinary problems. The large schools offered a complete array of special education and ELL services. They took troubled students without screening them out. As a result, their statistics began to show the impact of the small school movement. They were deemed failing. The more high risk students sent to the large high schools, the more the higher achieving students gravitated to the small schools, the clearer the fate became for the remaining large schools.
Of course the teachers in the ill-fated schools did not take the threat to their schools lying down. Groups immediately formed at Walton, Stevenson, and schools such as New School for Arts and Sciences. They studied performance indices, produced impressive cases for keeping their schools open, and quickly learned to speak that data language which they hoped would persuade the Department of Education that they filled a need for certain students in our city. The problem was, no one at the Department of Education was willing to meet with them. Calls and emails to the Department of Education were futile. As Bronx Dist. Rep at the time, I called Frank Volpicella, now the VP of Academic High Schools. He told me to go through Leo Casey to set up a meeting at the DOE. The teachers were ecstatic at the prospect of getting a hearing. Dr. Casey told me to email his contact, Peter Dillon at the DOE and meetings would be arranged. Every school had a meeting set and at the appointed time, they appeared downtown with their Powerpoints, data, and their passion to save their schools.
Unfortunately, it turned out that Peter Dillon, Julius Cohen, and the other representatives of the DOE paid scant attention to the presentations because, it turned out, they had no power to save the schools. They were the Department’s SMALL SCHOOL advocates and ended every meeting by handing the teachers brochures on how to start their own small schools. It was all very disappointing that the crestfallen teachers’ hard work and evidence were ignored. The intent of the teachers to save their schools and faculty was for nought. The UFT had sent them to meet with folks who had a vested interest in closing them down and redirecting their efforts.
Five years later, when the death sentences for each of these schools was to be proclaimed at the kangaroo PEP (Bloomberg’s Panel for Educational Policy) hearings, the same person who channeled these teachers to Dillon, Cohen, et al, was loudly railing against the school closings. At this point the support was five years too late. When the teachers were fighting the school closings, the UFT was counseling them that “this was the wave of the future and they should get on board”. In fact, New School for Arts and Sciences came out with such a good small school proposal involving a work-study partnership with the Hunts Point Market that it was co-opted by New Visions in a memorable meeting at Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s office. New Visions took the proposal and promised no jobs to those who designed it. Christine McMurray and her group of dedicated teachers from Stevenson worked hard to propose a small school in accordance with the DOE’s advice. It fell on deaf ears. Columbus fought its second closing sentence as hard as the first. But there was no Michelle Cahill this time. The demise of the historic Bronx high schools was unstoppable.
Under Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein there was a frenzy to close large high schools. The irony was that as there became fewer and fewer large high schools to serve the high needs populations, they had nowhere to go but the new small schools. Many of those started to fail as well. The system was in turmoil with schools opening, closing, and faculties that used to be stable in their schools being relocated constantly.
The process for creating the small school had undergone a total transformation under Bloomberg and Klein as well. In lieu of an orderly process of presentations by a teacher-led committee of stakeholders that had to earn the grants on the strength and viability of their proposals, there was no process. Small schools were just created by the Department of Education to place in phasing out schools. They were being formed out of whole cloth without participation from the community. There was actually one meeting at Morris that I remember where John White gathered community members and asked them what kind of school there would want in the space opening in the building. The stakeholders offered some vocational training suggestions, but it was pro forma and the DOE went ahead with creating something of their own. In the original model the principals and teachers would work in the schools they designed. In the Bloomberg-Klein model the idea for a school came first. Then they chose a principal. Then they began to hire a staff. Since the contract calls for a Union representative on the hiring committees to staff these schools, I was on many of them. We interviewed applicants who had nothing to do with the planning of these schools. This was as far away from the original idea behind the 21 Century Grants as could be.
There’s lots more to the story and somewhere on old CDs I have my union newsletters written at the time documenting how the closures were hurting the large school students. I’ll miss Kennedy High School. It was a great school in the Bronx that was made to fail, as were others, by the concentration of high needs students in their schools as a result of the “reform movement”. For sure, lots of money was made off public education funding by private corporations. But to the extent that so many of that movement’s assumptions have now been discredited, that the large schools with their traditions are gone forever, and education has not drastically improved, we have sacrificed a generation of students on the altar of “reform” and they will not get a second chance at an education.