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This year, the borough-based meetings, which took principals away from their schools for most of a day each month, have been called off. Instead, Sloves is visiting every school in the process of phasing out, to discuss the administrative and instructional challenges implicit in downsizing.
Principals aren't positive the current arrangement marks an improvement. Ingrid Thomas-Clark, whose Brooklyn middle school is now in its last year, says about the monthly meetings: "It was a good support, to listen to others and hear what can happen." At those meetings, she learned best practices from other principals, as well as mistakes that others had made, she says, noting that it was also convenient for the principals' union to meet with a group of soon-to-be job-hunters at one time. And Martinez says "it would have been tough" if he hadn't been able to meet with other principals in his same situation last year.
In the past, schools have often improved as they move toward their last days: Graduation rates inch up, attendance climbs, and violent incidents drop. DOE officials say those improvements are natural as staffs become smaller and more cohesive and students double down so they can beat the clock to graduate. Critics say the schools are helped along by the departure of their most troubled students, who they say often give up on school as a result of the DOE's closure decisions.
At I.S. 232, Thomas-Clark says some teachers jumped ship, but others redoubled their efforts and became even more effective and inspired in the classroom. "I don't think this would have happened if we were not phasing out," she says.
Unlike Thomas-Clark, Martinez knew when he became principal last year that his school was closing, and had already begun analyzing student data to figure out which students should get which kinds of support. Developing a staff that is soon to be dispersed might seem like a misuse of resources, Sloves says, but in fact it's a wise investment. Students benefit from better instruction, and teachers who are about to hit the job market get up-to-date skills, he says.
Sloves didn't set out to specialize in schools with just years to live. A physics geek in college, he originally came to the city 10 years ago from Southern California to get a master's degree in film from Columbia. After spending a couple of years teaching film at Mercy College, Sloves landed a job as a math teacher at Washington Irving High School. He had seen how seriously people in the film industry took themselves and wanted something different for himself. "If it's going to be a life-and-death situation, I want it to actually be a life-and-death situation," he says.
After three years at Washington Irving, Sloves entered the NYC Leadership Academy, the city's training program for aspiring principals, and then took over as principal at Harry Van Arsdale High School in Brooklyn, which was in its last year of phase-out. After Van Arsdale closed—graduating more than two-thirds of its last class—Sloves looked for another principalship. But he couldn't find a community excited about hiring a principal with only a few years of classroom experience under his belt. So he took a job working at Tweed with Taylor-Brown—reluctantly, he says, because he preferred to work in a school.
Though Sloves has a standing offer to move into a school should a position that's appropriate for him become available, he's happy to stick with his current job. Before it began, he had been to Far Rockaway to surf, but never to visit a school. Now, he has traveled to schools in all five boroughs, bringing along his bike when a phase-out school is far from the nearest subway. Getting a citywide perspective, and gaining experience at all school levels, will be an advantage later should he return to school leadership, Sloves says.
Sloves sees his role as supportive, not evaluative. To that end, he is planning to carry out informal quality reviews for each closing school to document its staff's hard work—but he doesn't always receive a warm reception. Particularly when the news about a closure is fresh, principals can bristle at the arrival of DOE officials who are dispatched to provide support. Sloves describes encountering one very angry principal this winter. "She was really cold to me," he says. "It was a little disconcerting." Then again, he acknowledges, "If somebody's been a principal for 25 years and someone like me walks in, I think there's going to be a little natural skepticism, and I don't blame them."
One explanation for the frosty relations could be the DOE's strategy for rolling out school closures. Schools get no formal warning before they are closed, and their communities, which are supposed to be consulted before major changes in the schools are made, sometimes learn about closures from the newspaper.
And once closures are announced, additional information can be slow to emerge. At the Agnes Humphrey School of Leadership in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a K-12 school that would have graduated its first high-school class in 2010, students and teachers complain that they haven't gotten sufficient information about the school's closure. The situation there is unique because the DOE is dispersing high-school students to other schools instead of allowing them to graduate from Agnes Humphrey.