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.

If you want to make the case that Tilden is a failure, you'll get help from some of the school's stats. Despite a heavy concentration of kids who need extra support, spending per student at Tilden in 2004 was $8,528, compared to the citywide figure of $11,282. The citywide graduation rate is 58 percent; at Tilden, it hovers just north of 40. In 2005, only 28.8 percent of the students who'd been there for four years passed the Math Regents Exam.

The English Regents is another story. Sixty percent of Tilden students passed it, a rate that approaches the citywide average and is 10 points higher than the one at similar schools.

How did Tilden accomplish that? Sweat equity—the same investment of dedication and passion that fuels the members of Save Our School.

illustration: Katherine Streeter

Take Zakiyyah Ali, for one, a social studies teacher and the coordinator of student activities. A line of students stretches out of her office door all day long. She's Jamaican, with a ponytail of braids cascading to the left, and she is not giving up. "I don't think a 40 percent graduation rate is acceptable," she says. "But I don't think closing the school is the answer.

Ali describes a variety of offerings, including the New Opportunity Program, where kids who have dropped out and are working can come back to school in the afternoon from 2 to 7. Clearly, she knows her students well. "We have kids who came from the country in Jamaica, where, if they were needed to work, their education went on the back burner," she says. "If you didn't have money for uniforms, you couldn't go to school."

Another SOS member, Margaret Johnson, serves as the parent coordinator for the school. She and Ali often join forces, whether in getting decorations for the school dance or driving to the Bronx to help a former student with her social studies homework. Tilden's death sentence floored Johnson. "I worked so hard to get the parents involved," she says. "Now many of them say, 'Why should I bother? The school is closing.'"

A teacher like Ali will likely have an easy time finding another job once Tilden closes; the city school system is crying out for qualified applicants. But she likes working at a place that serves its neighborhood. "What I love about Tilden is that we're not selective," she says. "We see the promise in everyone."

That's not necessarily the case with small schools. Come September, the city will have created nearly 200 of them, most with an exemption from accepting either special ed or English Language Learners for the first two years. Two reports, one from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and one from the New York Immigration Coalition and Advocates for Children, have made the case that this supposed boon for education leaves out kids on the margin. Another group, the Citywide Council on High Schools, filed a discrimination case with the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights.

Klein may think he's minting a better set of schools, but Leonie Haimson worries that he's minting dropouts. For students barely making it through already, the closing of a school can spell the ending of an education. "Once a school is phased out, no one is responsible for those kids," says Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters.

Just do the math. When the city's plan is complete, Tilden's building will be home to four schools with 500 kids apiece. You end up with some 700 "leftovers," not including the students who've fallen off the official timetable for graduation and would otherwise stay at Tilden.

Where are all these kids going to go? The answer for many leftovers has been to cram into the surrounding big high schools. Some schools that once had 2,500 or 3,000 students are now at 4,000 or even 5,000. In Brooklyn, parents at prized big schools like Midwood, Fort Hamilton, Edward R. Murrow, and James Madison have complained about the "dumping" of kids. Dorothy Giglio's son goes to James Madison—capacity: 2,500. Today, he's one of 4,300 students served in four split sessions.

Now Giglio is worried about the closing of Tilden and South Shore High, in the same district. She challenged Klein at a Chancellor's Parents Advisory Council meeting, she said, and "got it from him in writing that they wouldn't send those kids to Madison."

If not to Madison, then where?. Haimson points to the rising number of "discharges"—16,647 in 2005, up 3,000 from five years ago. The Department of Education doesn't follow up on those students. No one really knows where they land. "Like in Latin America," says Haimson, "these are the disappeared."

Since many of the small schools are so new, it's not yet clear how well they're serving the kids who do fit in. Some of the small schools have gone through two or three principals already. The Council on High Schools, which has advisory status with the Department of Ed, has asked Klein to postpone his plans.

"The problem with the small schools is not with the model," says David Bloomfield, the council president and a colleague of mine in the education department at Brooklyn College, "but with Bloomberg's frantic drive to create so many so fast. Issues of leadership, equity, teaching methods, and community partnerships—the guts of their education program—as well as their impact on other students in large schools have all been left to be sorted out later. Kids and parents suffer while the mayor surfs atop the publicity wave he generates."

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