Small Order


With its windows shining in a steady spring drizzle, Samuel J. Tilden High School hardly looks like a place in its last days. This March evening, the East Flatbush school is lit up for parents and kids who’ve come to meet with Tilden teachers at “Open School Night.”

Maybe a better name would be “About to Close Night.” Grade by grade over the next three years, Tilden will be shutting down. Never mind its clean hallways and bulletin boards decorated with AIDS posters and announcements about new clubs. In December, the city Department of Education declared Tilden a failure. Now the neighborhood school, home to 2,700 kids, is running out of time. Come 2010, when the last class of current students is scheduled to graduate, it will close its doors for good. In its building will be a collection small schools, the city’s new panacea for its ailing educational system. The first two are to open in the building this September. Neither will offer Tilden’s rich bilingual programming for the Haitian students who live on surrounding blocks.

The kids at Tilden are upset. “It’s a really good school,” said Tiffany Julien, a junior leaving Open School Night. “There are rotten eggs in every school. If the school is so bad, how come I’m doing so well?”

For Lamar McIntosh, also a junior, shuttering Tilden seems a little drastic. “I feel kind of bad,” he said. “Not every kid comes to school to make trouble. These kids need activities and programs to help them with their problems. Why is closing the school the answer?”

Fed up with low graduation rates and sometimes chaotic classrooms, schools chancellor Joel Klein has decided to kill off large neighborhood schools like Tilden and replace them with smaller, oftentimes more specialized ones. Klein is joined in this push by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and by a cadre of wealthy donors, notably Bill Gates. In recent years, the Microsoft multibillionaire has poured in $51.5 million to help the city open microschools, some of them occupying real estate recouped by closing places like Tilden.

Before taking this route, Bloomberg and Klein, the former Justice Department lawyer and a newcomer to education, at least did their history homework. In the 1970s, small schools were established in East Harlem with some success. The language of that era compared big schools to factories, in which students get lost and drop out. By contrast, wrote East Harlem principal Debbie Meier, small schools, where students and teachers get to know each other well, lead to achievement.

But what for Meier was an innovation has become, for Klein and Bloomberg, a bulldozer. Today, it’s out with big “zoned” high schools like Tilden and James Monroe. Filling their former buildings are small schools with frankly aspirational names like the High School of Computers and Technology, the New School for Arts and Sciences, the World Academy for Total Community Health, the Food and Finance High School, and the Freedom Academy High School. Never mind trying to graduate from the same neighborly alma mater as your parents. It’s time to make way for the High School of Law and Public Service, the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, and the High School for Violin and Dance.

Now, kids whose parents are equipped to take advantage of school choice will be able to graze through an even longer list of possible picks. And the small schools will likewise enjoy their pick of possible students.

I saw this filtering effect of New York’s school-choice system as far back as the 1980s, when I taught at a large neighborhood high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back then, the failing high school Benjamin Franklin reopened as the Manhattan Center for Math and Science, and Charles Evans Hughes as the High School for the Humanities. These new schools were allowed to screen students who applied. Meanwhile, at Seward Park High, we took all comers—including kids who couldn’t cut it anywhere else. At one point, Seward Park reached 4,000 students and was at 170 percent capacity. No wonder parents and their kids began avoiding so-called “zoned” schools if they possibly could.

Today, students at schools like Tilden get the sense that it’s not so much the kids who are getting a choice as it is the schools themselves. “In a way, it’s discrimination,” says Carlos Richardson, a Tilden baseball player. “They want to get us out of the school to get more high-quality students.”

Yet the families and teachers at Tilden are not going quietly. They’ve formed a group, Save Our School, and begun standing up to Klein and Bloomberg. They argue that even as Tilden has grown crowded with kids from other closed schools and watched resources shift from its classrooms to ones in small schools, it has remained worth saving.

Samuel J. Tilden was built in 1929, like many of the big old neighborhood high schools, for the city’s influx of Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. These schools now serve a different wave of immigrants. In Tilden’s case, it’s West Indian—Jamaican, Trinidadian, and Haitian—as well as African, Latino, and Asian. At Tilden, some 300 kids are English Language Learners, meaning that many kids come in not knowing a word of English. Recent immigrants comprise almost a quarter of the student body.

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.

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.”

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.

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.