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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."
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.
At a meeting before the winter vacation, teacher Stacy Lyles says, DOE officials, including Sloves, weren't able to answer students' most basic questions, such as whether they would be permitted to apply late to special programs that had already held auditions. "They just didn't seem to be prepared," Lyles says.
As time goes on, Sloves believes, issues are sure to resolve at Agnes Humphrey, as they usually do at other schools. Sloves recalls a visit to Brooklyn's Lafayette High School earlier this year. When the DOE announced in 2007 that it would close Lafayette, teachers and students went to the press with their protests. So when a teacher identified Sloves as a DOE emissary earlier this year, saying, "You're from Tweed, aren't you? I have something to tell you!", Sloves says he wasn't prepared for what came next.
The teacher, Rick Mangone, wanted to tell Sloves that the DOE's decision to close Lafayette had brought about major improvements at the school. Those efforts, he says, include a special program for students who need only a few credits to graduate, something that Sloves encourages as schools near their final closing day. Mangone, the head of Lafayette's teachers' union, was initially one of the most vocal opponents of the school's closure, but now says, "I think this was a winner for the DOE.
"I didn't agree with it initially, and I was hurt, but now I truly understand why they wanted to do something," he says. "It's a healthy environment, even though it's a sad one."