Will Success Spoil Early-College?


Unlike at most other city high schools, kids at Baruch College Campus High School arrive at school carrying their cell phones. They know that the security guards at the 12-story Baruch College building that houses their school don’t care about the city Department of Education policy that bans phones. They’re also different from students at many other high schools because they arrive ready to hunker down and learn—a mindset, they say, that comes from attending school in a college building, next to college students.

“It’s a better learning environment to be around,” says BCCHS senior Mary Georgescu. “You see that they’re serious, and it puts you in the mood.”

BCCHS is one of several high schools located on city university campuses. The space sharing is an example of the kind of collaboration between high schools and colleges that New York City has helped pioneer. Not only are more city public school graduates enrolling in City University of New York colleges—70 percent of the 35,000 first-time freshmen in the 17-campus system this year (up from 61 percent in 2002)—but city officials say the two school systems are also growing closer together.

“The boundaries between K-12 and 13-16 ought to be permeable,” said city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at a recent press conference with CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, held at Lehman College in the Bronx. “We’re working together to create a truly K-16 school system.”

What Klein and Goldstein didn’t say at the press event was that the twin trends they championed—increased enrollment at city colleges and collaboration between universities and high schools—could actually be at odds with each other. As more students are attracted to CUNY’s low price tag

and improving reputation, CUNY’s colleges are increasingly competing for space and resources with their high school tenants, and some of the two systems’ collaborative efforts have been put at risk.

For a long time, the most common relationship between city schools and CUNY colleges has been regressive: The vast majority of city public school graduates enrolling at CUNY’s two-year colleges must pass remedial, high school–caliber classes before they can start on college work. The DOE and CUNY are working together to figure out how to prepare students better for college work, which is one reason that they’re so enthusiastic about schools, such as BCCHS, that offer college-level classes while students are still in high school.

Currently, more than 30 city high schools offer some variation on the model embodied by BCCHS. The schools fall into three basic types. First are schools, such as BCCHS, that emerged organically, and sometimes haphazardly, from relationships between college and high school leaders. One of those, Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College, became the model for the second type of school, expressly intended to make college feel accessible for students not typically considered college-bound.

In the third kind of school, the “early-college” model, students take multiple college classes while still in high school, earning as much as two years of college credit before graduation. New York City is home to a dozen early-college schools, most of which have opened in the last few years. Although the model is considered too new to have generated reliable data about its success in preparing students for college, President Barack Obama touted early-college schools in his major education speech in March. And Klein and Goldstein recently announced that a career-oriented early-college school would open in September, in partnership with Brooklyn’s City Tech.

But as the CUNY system swells to more than a quarter of a million students for the first time this fall, several colleges are struggling to find space for their own students. Most of the system’s campuses were built when the system had 20 percent fewer students, according to CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. In a sprawling system where colleges make major decisions autonomously, Goldstein’s vision of collaboration might not always be able to compete with space constraints and budget pressures.

The enrollment boom is part of the reason that Middle College High School, the progenitor of the city’s entire college-in-high-school movement, could be displaced from its home on LaGuardia Community College’s Long Island City campus this fall. Founded in 1974 as one of the city’s earliest alternative high schools, Middle College has long sublet a building that the college rents from a private owner. LaGuardia’s lease expires this spring, and it isn’t being renewed. Anticipating 10 percent more students this fall, LaGuardia has told the DOE that it won’t be able to let Middle College join the two other DOE schools elsewhere on its campus. Parents and students have said they worry that a move could be a debilitating blow to the high school, which spawned a national consortium of schools premised on sharing space with colleges. The Middle College National Consortium, based in Long Island City, now operates 20 schools in 10 states, including three in New York City.

The disconnect between vision and reality is even starker at Baruch College, where, as president in the 1990s, Goldstein masterminded the creation of BCCHS. After more than a decade in operation, BCCHS is currently preparing to vacate its home on the 10th floor of its Baruch building on Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street.

Principal Alicia Perez-Katz says the school was “founded on a handshake,” and when she took the reins several years ago and asked for details about the school’s partnership with the college, she was surprised by the answer: “There was nothing.” Since she became principal, Perez-Katz says, a tutoring program that used Baruch students foundered and the college stopped offering its students as BCCHS office assistants. So when Baruch decided to renovate the building that houses the high school, it didn’t surprise her that BCCHS wasn’t in the plans for the refurbished building.

“With different leadership at the college, the vision of the college is now different,” Perez-Katz says. “We aren’t seen as part of their vision and mission.”

Baruch officials say that the decision to relocate BCCHS during the renovation, which is set to begin this summer, was the DOE’s. As for when the building reopens, they say, BCCHS isn’t in the plans because Baruch needs every square foot it can get, even though it just opened a massive “vertical campus” in the neighborhood. Baruch currently has just 64.6 square feet per student, one of the lowest ratios among the CUNY colleges, according to spokeswoman Christina Latouf. Nationally, colleges and universities maintained a median of 277 square feet per student last year, according to a survey conducted by American School & University, a higher education industry magazine.

“We cannot accommodate any more students,” Latouf says about Baruch’s campus. “And we’re not in a position where we can relocate anything.”

In September, BCCHS will reopen just two blocks north, in a bright and sunny building being vacated by another DOE school that’s being closed due to poor performance. No longer will as many as four teachers have to share a classroom, and students will have their own lockers instead of tripling up with their classmates, as they must at Baruch.

But the location, on a quiet block just east of Madison Square Park, in the shadows of the MetLife building, feels like a different world to students who are accustomed to the hustle and bustle of 23rd Street. “I don’t know how we’ll be able to get our lunch in 30 minutes,” one student worries.

Of greater concern to parents and administrators is the fact that the DOE’s lease on the new space lasts only one more year, and it won’t be renewed. No one knows where the school will be located come September 2010. DOE officials have promised that the school will remain in the same district, but they can’t promise that its permanent location will be anywhere near Baruch College. Perez-Katz says the uncertainty hasn’t affected applications because the school is considered successful in its own right. But Yvonne Attard, the mother of a graduating senior, says her daughter might not have chosen the school without the draw of being on Baruch’s campus.

Recently, some students were surprised to learn that this summer’s move isn’t the last planned for the school. “We have to move again?” asked sophomore Ismeta Kolonovic in disbelief. “We should change our name.”

Independently, Perez-Katz raised the same possibility. “Will we keep the ‘campus’ part of the name?” she asked. “We’ll see.”

A lot depends on whether BCCHS’s relationship with Baruch survives the move. A greater distance apart could threaten the school’s already-tenuous partnership with Baruch, Perez-Katz says. Despite its evolving vision, Baruch continues to run special sections of some advanced courses, such as calculus, just for BCCHS students, and Baruch students provide free SAT tutoring at the high school. Plus, motivated BCCHS upperclassmen can enroll in classes at Baruch on their own. Georgescu says her Baruch art professor was “amazing.”

“I’m hopeful that we can maintain and develop the relationship,” Perez-Katz says. “I really hope that the move doesn’t put a boundary there.”

Advocates for high school–college partnerships say a boundary might be unavoidable. Ted Killmer, a spokesman for the Middle College National Consortium, says a relationship is likely to become logistically unsustainable “if they move off a college campus further than a couple of blocks.”

But CUNY and DOE officials say distance can be overcome with ingenuity and, in some cases, extra bus services. Cass Conrad, director of CUNY’s Early College Initiative, says that many of the partnership schools flourish despite logistical obstacles. “Each school has kind of worked out methods that work for themselves,” she adds.

One of those schools is the CSI High School for International Studies, which opened in 2005 on the edge of the College of Staten Island campus; it moved into a new building almost three miles away last September because the college, whose enrollment grew by more than 5 percent last year, wasn’t able to provide more space for it. “I wouldn’t walk it,” Principal Aimee Horowitz says about the new distance.

But Horowitz says that by “planning strategically,” her school hadn’t suffered because of the move. The DOE runs a midday bus for advanced biology students who do their lab work at the college, and other students drive to the college for afternoon and evening classes. CSI students still come to the high school to work as tutors. It also doesn’t hurt that the high school moved into a brand-new building, replete with a library, gym, state-of-the-art science labs, and more space than it had on the CSI campus, Horowitz says.

Because the DOE contracts with bus companies anyway, running additional routes during the school day can be done for very little cost, according to DOE officials. The department has promised buses for students at Bronx Early College Academy, which, instead of moving into a permanent location near its partner college, Lehman College, will move even farther away next year.

“We try to be flexible to allow schools to accomplish the programs they want to achieve,” says John White, the DOE official in charge of deciding where schools are located.

Even with the DOE’s help, Horowitz says, the fact that her school and the College of Staten Island still work together to develop new programs—such as an all-day college immersion for the high school’s first senior class this year—took hard work. “That was from a conscious effort on both parts,” Horowitz says. “The partnership is only as strong as the commitment from both partners.”

Like Horowitz, DOE officials say commitment is crucial in order for early-college high schools to thrive far from their partner colleges. “This model is tremendously successful when it’s implemented in a joint manner,” White says. “The bonds crumble quickly when there are operational constraints, especially if the bonds aren’t secure to begin with.”

For now, both CUNY and the DOE appear to be moving toward a partnership model that doesn’t rely on location to generate the sense of academic seriousness that Mary Georgescu described at BCCHS.

The College Now program, available in nearly 300 of the city’s roughly 500 high schools, takes up CUNY classroom space only when there are seats to spare. Tens of thousands of students take College Now classes each year, ranging from study skills classes to college-level science and math. Some take them on college campuses along with college students, but, far more often, College Now takes the form of CUNY-funded instructors teaching in high school classrooms. In the early-college model, Conrad says, “the transition from high school into college is fairly gradual and fairly supported.” So sending CUNY instructors on a part-time basis to high schools instead of opening special sections of courses to high school students on college campuses fits right in, she says.

In addition, changes inside the DOE have made it easier for some schools to build up their relationships with CUNY colleges, particularly when it comes to training teachers. In 2006, the Center for an Urban Future criticized the DOE for what it called a “lack of institutional support” for CUNY partnership schools.

Since then, the department has been reorganized so that principals in early-college schools can choose to align themselves directly with a CUNY-run professional development network. Eight of the 11 early-college schools opted to join it in 2007, as did a number of other college prep schools that had no previous relationship with CUNY.

For schools that do want to maintain a physical relationship in the face of CUNY’s system-wide space crunch, there might be other approaches to integrating campuses beyond simply busing students, says Conrad, who also heads the professional development network. “We’re hoping that some of the schools will develop the technology that will help them connect,” she says.

As much as students and parents at the CUNY-partnered schools that are facing relocation might fear the change, Conrad emphasized that location is not the defining characteristic of successful early-college schools. “It’s not the building that’s different,” she says. “It’s the rigor.” l

Most Popular