Students at Samuel Gompers High School in the South Bronx held a protest march today to ask for more support for their struggling school. (Patrick Wall)

Students at a South Bronx high school staged a march today to demand that the city seek more federal support to improve their school.

The students, who attend Samuel Gompers High School, have a specific improvement model in mind: the “re-start” option that is one of four models districts can follow in order to receive federal school turnaround funding.

Gompers is one of nine poorly performing high schools that are eligible for the federal help, but are not part of the city’s application for federal turnaround grants. Twenty-two other schools are receiving the grants, and 11 schools are already working with federal grants under the “transformation” improvement model.

“Why hasn’t the DOE given the grants to all the schools?” Gompers sophomore Sony Cabral asked at the rally. “They’re setting us up for failure.”

The students ended their march, which attracted about two dozen students, at the nearby Banana Kelly High School, one of the schools slated to receive the restart funding.

The city chose schools for the restart plan that it felt showed signs of improvement and enough leadership capacity to work with outside organizations to make serious adjustments, said Department of Education spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

“The schools we didn’t choose for restart just did not have the type of leadership and staff in place that we felt could effectively team up with an educational partnership organization,” said Zarin-Rosenfeld.

School officials said that the nine schools that are not part of the city’s turnaround application will still get some support. The city Department of Education is adding an extra $300,000 to their budgets and offering help from teams in the Children’s First networks, which support schools with a range of needs from professional development to budgeting.

Under the restart model, the DOE will contract with non-profit education management organizations to help turn around low-performing schools. The management organizations, which will receive a portion of the federal grant money, will have the authority to recommend budget and staff changes to the schools chancellor, Zarin-Rosenfeld said.

The partner organizations and the schools will work to revamp curriculum, support students who are behind, and help teachers improve their practice, he said.

“We need as much help as we can get”

The Department of Education counts Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School among the city’s lowest-performing schools. The school’s graduation rate last year was 51 percent, below the citywide average of 63 percent. The city gave it a C overall on its 2009-2010 progress report, with an F for the section on school environment, which factors in parent, teacher, and student surveys about schools’ academic expectations and school safety.

Of the school’s 780 students, nearly three-quarters qualify for free or reduced price lunch and about one quarter receive special education services.

The Gompers students who organized the march are members of a student organizing group called Sistas and Brothas United. The group, which trains young people to organize around issues in their communities, is affiliated with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The students said they joined the group out of a concern that the city would shut down their school for its low performance.

The 20 or so Gompers students in the group meet regularly to discuss problems they see at school and possible solutions. They’ve staged class walkouts, attended education rallies and have met with their school administration.

The students say more engaging lessons and new computers and textbooks would motivate students and increase attendance. One student said his history class uses textbooks in which the most recent president is Ronald Reagan. Other students said that the principal, Joyce Mills Kittrell, could interact more with students.

“We definitely need new teachers and a new principal,” said Lopez, the Gompers junior. “Or at least help her to do a better job. I feel like she’s not even there.”

Kittrell has not replied to previous requests for an interview. The principals and staff at restart schools are not automatically replaced, unlike other school improvement models.

Phasing out Gompers could still be on the horizon. “If the school continues to struggle and does not improve, we would certainly consider replacing the school with a better option,” he said.

Lopez and other students at Gompers said that they hope to fix the problems at their school before school officials loses faith. To do that, Lopez said, “We need as much help as we can get.”

Anxiety at Banana Kelly

When the march reached Banana Kelly, several students there joined the protest. A dean at Banana Kelly, Daniel Jerome, said that some teachers at the school are nervous about what the restart model will entail. Jerome said teachers worry that the new management organizations will implement drastic changes without getting input from staff and students. “The fear is, are these organizations going to be like quasi-charters?” Jerome said.

Jerome also said he was concerned the new organizations, working under contract for the city, would feel pressure to show quick improvements at the schools, particularly in the form of graduation rates and test scores. “Are they going to raise the graduation rate by pushing kids out or make us teach to the test?” Jerome asked.

Banana Kelly students who joined the Gompers protest said that their school needs more resources, not new management. “We have great teachers and principals,” said Shainel Fowler, a junior at Banana Kelly. “But it’s up to the government to give them the resources they need.”

Fowler said the school lacks a library and a gymnasium. Physical education classes often meet on a baseball diamond behind the school.

Zarin-Rosenfeld said teachers and community members will have a role in the restart process. “Staff will be intimately involved with the partner organization,” he said. “And we intend to keep this process transparent so that families know exactly what’s going on in their schools and how they can help turn them around.”