Small Order

City leaders want kids out of large schools and into smaller ones. Now one Brooklyn high school is fighting the mandate to close its doors.

With its windows shining in a steady spring drizzle, Samuel J. Tilden High School hardly looks like a place in its last days. This March evening, the East Flatbush school is lit up for parents and kids who've come to meet with Tilden teachers at "Open School Night."

Maybe a better name would be "About to Close Night." Grade by grade over the next three years, Tilden will be shutting down. Never mind its clean hallways and bulletin boards decorated with AIDS posters and announcements about new clubs. In December, the city Department of Education declared Tilden a failure. Now the neighborhood school, home to 2,700 kids, is running out of time. Come 2010, when the last class of current students is scheduled to graduate, it will close its doors for good. In its building will be a collection small schools, the city's new panacea for its ailing educational system. The first two are to open in the building this September. Neither will offer Tilden's rich bilingual programming for the Haitian students who live on surrounding blocks.

The kids at Tilden are upset. "It's a really good school," said Tiffany Julien, a junior leaving Open School Night. "There are rotten eggs in every school. If the school is so bad, how come I'm doing so well?"

illustration: Katherine Streeter

For Lamar McIntosh, also a junior, shuttering Tilden seems a little drastic. "I feel kind of bad," he said. "Not every kid comes to school to make trouble. These kids need activities and programs to help them with their problems. Why is closing the school the answer?"

Fed up with low graduation rates and sometimes chaotic classrooms, schools chancellor Joel Klein has decided to kill off large neighborhood schools like Tilden and replace them with smaller, oftentimes more specialized ones. Klein is joined in this push by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and by a cadre of wealthy donors, notably Bill Gates. In recent years, the Microsoft multibillionaire has poured in $51.5 million to help the city open microschools, some of them occupying real estate recouped by closing places like Tilden.

Before taking this route, Bloomberg and Klein, the former Justice Department lawyer and a newcomer to education, at least did their history homework. In the 1970s, small schools were established in East Harlem with some success. The language of that era compared big schools to factories, in which students get lost and drop out. By contrast, wrote East Harlem principal Debbie Meier, small schools, where students and teachers get to know each other well, lead to achievement.

But what for Meier was an innovation has become, for Klein and Bloomberg, a bulldozer. Today, it's out with big "zoned" high schools like Tilden and James Monroe. Filling their former buildings are small schools with frankly aspirational names like the High School of Computers and Technology, the New School for Arts and Sciences, the World Academy for Total Community Health, the Food and Finance High School, and the Freedom Academy High School. Never mind trying to graduate from the same neighborly alma mater as your parents. It's time to make way for the High School of Law and Public Service, the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, and the High School for Violin and Dance.

Now, kids whose parents are equipped to take advantage of school choice will be able to graze through an even longer list of possible picks. And the small schools will likewise enjoy their pick of possible students.

I saw this filtering effect of New York's school-choice system as far back as the 1980s, when I taught at a large neighborhood high school on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Back then, the failing high school Benjamin Franklin reopened as the Manhattan Center for Math and Science, and Charles Evans Hughes as the High School for the Humanities. These new schools were allowed to screen students who applied. Meanwhile, at Seward Park High, we took all comers—including kids who couldn't cut it anywhere else. At one point, Seward Park reached 4,000 students and was at 170 percent capacity. No wonder parents and their kids began avoiding so-called "zoned" schools if they possibly could.

Today, students at schools like Tilden get the sense that it's not so much the kids who are getting a choice as it is the schools themselves. "In a way, it's discrimination," says Carlos Richardson, a Tilden baseball player. "They want to get us out of the school to get more high-quality students."

Yet the families and teachers at Tilden are not going quietly. They've formed a group, Save Our School, and begun standing up to Klein and Bloomberg. They argue that even as Tilden has grown crowded with kids from other closed schools and watched resources shift from its classrooms to ones in small schools, it has remained worth saving.

Samuel J. Tilden was built in 1929, like many of the big old neighborhood high schools, for the city's influx of Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. These schools now serve a different wave of immigrants. In Tilden's case, it's West Indian—Jamaican, Trinidadian, and Haitian—as well as African, Latino, and Asian. At Tilden, some 300 kids are English Language Learners, meaning that many kids come in not knowing a word of English. Recent immigrants comprise almost a quarter of the student body.
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