By Alex Distefano
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By Anna Merlan
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On a recent Friday with the temperature hovering just below freezing, Sam Sloves rolled down East 109th Street in Manhattan, also known as Stickball Hall of Fame Alley, on a beat-up red bike that appeared a touch too small for his six-foot-four frame. Wearing hospital scrubs and a windbreaker emblazoned with the insignia of an Upper West Side alternative high school over his suit, his briefcase in a wire basket on his bike's handlebars, Sloves pulled up in front of the Tito Puente Education Complex, a low-slung building that houses four schools, including the long-troubled middle school he'd come to visit.
In the hall, Sloves found principal Ralph Martinez laughing with a staff member. Martinez arrived at Tito Puente a year ago, just weeks after the city's Department of Education announced the school would graduate its last class of eighth-graders in 2010. His task, he says: "To close the school out with dignity," a job requiring the palliative attention of Sloves, whose friends joke that he's the Grim Reaper of public schools. For his part, Sloves is quick to distance himself from any doom-and-gloom monikers. As the DOE's director of school transformation, he works to provide support for schools in the process of closing; the transformation, he says, comes with the opening of new, more successful schools in the same buildings.
Sloves's job responsibilities include communicating the DOE's rationale for closing schools to disappointed, and often angry, teachers and students; working with principals to make sure all students graduate by the time the school closes; and helping administrators navigate the bureaucratic intricacies of closing out bank accounts and vendor contracts. "When I'm at my best, I'm advocating for those schools" and their students, he says, so that they get all the support they need within the DOE.
New York City has closed low-performing schools for years, but the pace has quickened under the current schools chancellor, Joel Klein. Since Klein took office in 2001, he has closed or started phasing out more than 90 schools that were plagued by low test scores and, in many cases, histories of violence. The biggest push has been at the high-school level, where the DOE has broken down many of the large high schools that for years had graduated only a small proportion of their students.
Flush with funds from the Gates Foundation, Klein opened hundreds of new small high schools, often with specialized themes ranging from the arts to aerospace engineering. The new schools have posted higher graduation rates than the large schools they replaced, although a 2007 report commissioned by New Visions for Public Schools, the nonprofit organization that incubated virtually all of the early schools, found that fewer of their students finished with the more rigorous type of state diploma. (Advocates say the new schools have also benefited from a policy that allowed them to enroll few students with special needs in their early years.)
Schools in the process of closing, meanwhile, have stayed largely under the radar. They don't receive progress reports, the controversial evaluations where schools receive a single letter grade to summarize their performance. Nor are they subject to the DOE's "Quality Review" process that evaluates how well schools function internally. And although recent reports have suggested that some are flush with extra funds as their enrollments dwindle, in fact, schools in the process of closing must reduce their staff sizes and program offerings each year.
Still, the hard work of teaching and learning continues until the last day that schools are open—in the case of high schools, as long as three and a half years after the shock of learning they've been slated for closure.
Standing outside of Bayard Rustin High School on West 18th Street recently, the morning after learning the school would be phased out because of its poor performance, a group of students discussed how their school might change as its 2012 closure date approaches.
Two sophomores in the school's Gateway honors program speculated that there would probably be even fewer opportunities for motivated students like them. The school already eliminated its Advanced Placement classes this year, said Maurice Dunn. His classmate Katherine Suazzo, who wants to be a dentist, worried that the school will cut physics as it did this year to chemistry.
But Amy Leung, also a sophomore in the Gateway program, said she sees at least one bright spot in the school's future. "There's going to be less people, and the teachers could put more focus on the students," she hypothesized.
That's what the DOE hopes will happen as it pursues a beefed-up agenda of school shuttering. Department officials say that as schools get smaller, they can morph into tightly knit learning communities where no child can fall through the cracks. Large schools start to resemble the small ones that are replacing them.
Last year, Sloves's predecessor, Geri Taylor-Brown, convened monthly meetings in each borough for principals of schools in the process of closing to learn about strategies to get students to graduation on time. But staff from Tweed only visited individual schools if their attention was requested or, as Sloves puts it, "if the stuff hit the fan."