closing time

As Columbus closes, its last class celebrates a bittersweet graduation

As they waited for their graduation ceremony to begin, the seniors of Christopher Columbus High School looked like any other graduating class: they clicked selfies, adjusted their caps and gowns, and joked as they waited to be called into the auditorium.

But these 75 students had a special distinction: they made up the last class to ever graduate from Columbus.

Columbus High School wasn’t alone. Three years after the Panel for Educational Policy voted to phase it out in meetings filled with tears and protests, Columbus become one of 22 city schools to close this year, a vestige of the Bloomberg administration’s plan to replace larger, struggling schools with smaller ones.

As the schools shrank, teachers and students left to look for more class offerings or a more stable environment. That left the remaining bunch with an even tighter-knit school community that grew closer in the final push.

At Jamaica High School, that community was especially small. About 20 students graduated last week.

Sarah Kissoon, a graduating senior at Jamaica, said she spent the school’s last few years worried about course offerings and how attending a closing school would look to colleges. (Kissoon, salutatorian, is attending Brooklyn College in the fall.)

“We did feel like a stepchild at first,” Kissoon said about her freshman year. “But knowing that the teachers are there supporting us made it feel a little better.”

Closed Schools 2014

More than 140 schools have closed since the Bloomberg administration began phasing them out early in his tenure. Some of this year’s closures, including Jamaica and Columbus high schools, were once among the city’s most well-known schools, both for their place in neighborhood lore and, more recently, for their struggles to graduate students.

In 2009-10, Jamaica and Columbus graduated students in four years at a rate of 50 and 47 percent, respectively. The citywide average that year was 65 percent.

City officials said the only way to improve outcomes for students was to start fresh with smaller, often specialized schools, a tactic that the teachers union criticized for displacing teachers. In the meantime, as they closed, the older schools would be able to provide more support to students, department officials said.

For those who stayed, even as teachers left and students transferred out, the promise of more individual attention was a reality. Baptiste’s English class at Columbus, for example, was very small.

“There were three people in my class,” Baptiste said.

Still, there was no ignoring the realities of a dwindling school. In its last year, Jamaica occupied the basement. Columbus had what its principal called “a little horseshoe” of classrooms and offices in a corner of the building. Staff members worried about how they’d carry students through to graduation with passing grades and minimal disruption.

Some of the schools faced additional hurdles in their last years – including the havoc of Superstorm Sandy for Beach Channel High School in the Rockaways, and a principal battling cancer last year, in the case of Columbus in the Bronx.

Students take photos before graduating from the closing Christopher Columbus High School.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Students take photos before graduating from the closing Christopher Columbus High School.

In many ways, the recent past of Christopher Columbus High School, in particular, maps the history of reforms under the Bloomberg administration’s effort to shake-up the city’s high school landscape and jolt graduation rates upward.

Starting in 2003, the Columbus’ honor programs broke off and became separate schools in the same building. The remaining 3,400 students attended classes in shifts, according to the New York Times. At one point, the school had more than 4,000 students, Principal Lisa Fuentes said.

In 2010, the city slated Columbus for possible closure, citing its low graduation rates and failure to meet students’ needs.

During this time, school officials say they didn’t get the help they required. Higher-need students were assigned at disproportionate rates to closing schools across the city, including over-the-counter students who didn’t go through the high school admissions process or who moved to the city late in the year. During Columbus’ first phase-out year, 37 percent of its students were over-the-counter, as were 31 percent of Jamaica’s students. At similar schools, only 14 percent arrived that way, according to a report.

In a last-ditch effort to save the school, Columbus unsuccessfully tried to convert into a charter school before preparing for the phase-out.

“We didn’t accept it, so we starting fighting to keep it open,” said Fuentes, a graduate of the school’s class of 1977.

As the phase-out progressed, a number of smaller schools opened in its place at what is now called the Christopher Columbus Educational Campus. There are now six other schools in the cavernous building: the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science; Pelham Preparatory Academy; Astor Collegiate Academy; the closing Global Enterprise High School; and two new schools, Bronxdale High School and the High School of Language and Innovation.

The city is no longer focused on creating small schools and the de Blasio administration is cool to closing schools, too—meaning the current composition of the Columbus building is likely to hold.

Meanwhile, as the graduating seniors of Columbus crossed the auditorium stage at Lehman College last week, teachers, students and staff celebrated the end to a tumultuous few years.

Many graduates said they were sad to see their school close. They won’t get to visit old teachers or pop into the principal’s office to say hello in years to come. Instead, it will be filled with hundreds of students in different schools.

But Fuentes is reminded that, now that they’ve graduated, the students will spend more time looking forward than back.

“They are going to miss it,” Fuentes said. “But they are going to forget. They are going to move on.”

This post has been updated to reflect that 22 schools closed in 2014.

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father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.