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.

One person who has numbers is Leo Casey, a researcher for the United Federation of Teachers. He used the Department of Ed's own data to compare big "failing" schools in the Bronx with the small schools that replaced them. "As a general rule...the DOE has created enormous concentrations of the highest-needs students in the large comprehensive high schools," Casey writes. "Having created a competition in which one school runs on a flat surface and the other school runs up the steepest of hills, Tweed [the Department of Education] pretends in an intellectually dishonest fashion that they are running the same race."


Tilden has lived the reality Casey calculates. As other big schools closed, Tilden's special-education population surged—those kids now constitute 10 percent of the student body—as did its number of criminal or violent incidents. Eric "Rock" Eisenberg is the athletic director, the basketball coach, and a dean. He's also "suspense coordinator," the one who reports on these incidents.

"We don't play fast and loose with our numbers," said Eisenberg, who argues some schools paper over theirs to escape scrutiny. Tilden was included as a dangerous school on the city's Impact List, qualifying it for metal detectors and extra security.

illustration: Katherine Streeter

Jane Roth, another SOS member, can think of a few items Tilden needs more urgently. "We're dealing with a computer room that hasn't been serviced for years," she says. "I can't even get a cartridge replaced." Meanwhile, her friend at one of the new small schools is in fat city. "They have money to burn," she said. "They have new books, anything they want, DVD players, computer projection screens, new furniture."

Roth and others at Tilden have put a lot of work into designing "small learning communities," which they see as an alternative to closing Tilden. Eighteen big schools—Christopher Columbus, Beach Channel, and Alfred E. Smith among them—have restructured themselves and stayed open. The Tilden teachers have put together plans for an arts academy, as well as plans for teaching law, science, health and physical education. They also want to continue the Haitian bilingual program.

When you're dealing with kids who arrived in this country two, those bilingual classes really matter. "It allows them to feel more like the adults they are becoming, rather than babies who must grope for basic words and the structure of English the entire day," explains teacher John Lawhead.

But chances of Tilden supporters getting to restructure the school seem less than minimal. Jemina Bernard, chief operations officer for the DOE's Office of New Schools, would have nothing to do with their idea. "In the case of Tilden, it's really about a school with a long history of low performance and a number of factors making it difficult to run," she said. "The chancellor's belief is that every iteration has been attempted and radical reform is necessary."

Never mind that last year, the School Quality Review team pronounced Tilden a "proficient school with some underdeveloped areas."

"Quality reviews are only part of the process," said Bernard. "We're not going to delay decisions for schools which require radical reform."

Why would the city be so bent on forcing the move to small schools? "Part of it is the availability of funding," says Bloomfield, of Brooklyn College. "And part of it is the public relations value in school closure, including taking Tilden off any list of low-performing schools. If you create a small 'learning community,' the school still exists. If you close the school, you restart the clock."


Ramercy Nuñez, a junior, is racing against time. She's going to school from 7:15 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, and she's taking summer school so she can graduate in August and go to John Jay College in the fall. "I don't want things to get worse for us once they start to close the school," she says.

Her peers are set to share space at Tilden next year with the Expeditionary Learning Academy for Community Leaders and the It Takes a Village Academy, which, according to the high-school directory, will be accepting students not yet fluent in English.

Standing outside on a bright spring day, Nuñez calls Tilden a decent school. "There are no people hanging around the corner, no drugs," she says. "I think they'd make a big mistake closing this school." Around her, kids are making their way to rehearsals and sports practices.

Danaya Hamilton, a sophomore getting ready for a talent show, says Tilden deserves a chance. "They're always talking about our graduation rate," she says. "You look at Tilden, and then you look at Madison or Murrow, where you have to have an 85 average to get in. That's leaving us with kids with 65 averages. How do you expect us to do?"

Baseball player Carlos Richardson says things are better under new principal Diane Varano. "She is listening to our opinions to hear what we have to say," he reports.

"And we have more after-school activities, like music clubs, SAT classes, martial arts, and the leadership program," says his teammate, Warren Hazel. "A lot is going on."

With that, they excuse themselves for practice. "Maybe you can help us out," says Richardson. "Thank you very much."

Jessica Siegel is an assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College. She taught for 12 years in the New York City public schools.

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