Some students at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx heard the news from a superintendent, who went from classroom to classroom informing them that their school would be closed after this school year. Others learned secondhand from friends, or from letters they were told to bring home.
But if it came as a surprise that their school — which serves fewer than 500 students in grades 6 to 12 — was among 14 troubled schools that the New York City education department announced Monday it intends to shutter, the decision nonetheless made sense to many students: One of their peers had fatally stabbed one boy and seriously wounded another during history class this September. The violence shocked the city and school community, yet it did not seem totally out of place at a school where student clashes were commonplace and instability was the order of the day.
“People were happy that the school is closing because the school is not really a great school,” said Sarah Vega, a 12th-grader, during an interview Monday with four schoolmates that was arranged by the group, Teens Take Charge. “We weren’t surprised,” added Chloe Oliveras.
The school has been on the decline in recent years. Its state test scores have sunk further and further below the citywide average, with just 12 percent of students passing the English tests and 5 percent passing math last school year. (The high school’s 75 percent four-year graduation rate is on par with the city average, and 8 points above the Bronx rate.)
At the same time, it has churned through several leaders and, since last academic year, lost over 100 students — including about 45 who received department permission to transfer in the wake of the stabbing. In addition, just five students listed the school as their first choice when applying to high schools for next year.
In an email to reporters Monday, the education department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, listed steps the department had taken to stabilize the school, like boosting staff training, installing a new principal, and dispatching officials, including schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to visit.
“Despite these additional interventions, there continues to be instability for students and staff,” Holness wrote, “and the Chancellor has determined that Wildlife students will be better served at another school.”
The school has been open since 2007, but students said a feeling of disorder began to take hold under Astrid Jacobo, who was principal from December 2015 until she was removed in October. In a survey last academic year, just 36 percent of teachers said they considered the principal an effective manager. (Jacobo did not respond to an email seeking comment.)
Meanwhile, only 55 percent of students said they felt safe in the school’s hallways and cafeteria, and just 22 percent said most students treat each other with respect. On Monday, students said fights were common, as were requests for “safety transfers” to other schools.
“It was like no discipline whatsoever,” Chloe said. Added Sarah: “I don’t feel safe in that school.”
Wildlife Conservation had started to implement “restorative justice” practices, which push students to reflect on their misbehavior and try to repair any harm they’ve caused. Part of that effort involved a “justice panel” of students who would interview their classmates about their actions, try to figure out what caused them, and come up with “sanctions,” which might include a written reflection or an apology letter to a teacher.
“Some kids take it seriously, some kids don’t,” said Sarah, who is on the panel. “Usually they don’t listen to us because obviously they’re not going to listen to someone who’s so close to their age.”
On Monday, Sarah added, the panel heard from a girl who had flown into a rage after a classmate flung a piece of paper at her; during her outburst, she threatened to throw a chair at her teacher.
The incident she described was eerily reminiscent of the one on Sept. 27, when 18-year-old Abel Cedeno reportedly snapped during history class after being pelted with bits of paper and pencils, before stabbing 15-year-old Matthew McCree to death and seriously wounding Ariane Laboy, 16. Cedeno, who has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges, later said that other students had taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs.
After the attack, the city sent in grief counselors and beefed up security, which included adding metal detectors. But, the students said, things still didn’t feel right.
They had to walk past the classroom where their friend was killed — the “crime scene,” as Chloe put it. Later, students objected when the administration wanted to reopen the room, so instead it was converted into an office, the students said. At one point, feeling unheard and out of sorts after the stabbing, some students held a silent sit-in in the hallway.
“Everyone was crying and throwing tantrums,” in the days after the stabbing, said Miarah Cabassa, also in 12th grade. “We all was hurt.”
In a statement, Frank Giaimo, the acting principal who replaced Jacobo, said he has focused on making sure all students and staff feel safe and welcomed at the school.
“Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent time getting to know the community and together, we will continue our work to provide students with high-quality instruction, support teachers and partner with families,” he said.
Separately, the education department has promised to work individually with students at the closing schools to ensure they are offered spots at higher-performing schools next year. (The normal high-school application period ended Dec. 1.)
Seniors who are preparing to graduate from the School for Wildlife Conservation will never get that second chance to attend a safe, orderly high school. But for some younger students like Jaidan Oliveras, a 9th-grader who learned of the city’s plans from his sister, Chloe, it felt like a reprieve.
“I was just happy because I’ll get to transfer because I don’t want to be at that school,” said Jaidan, who has attended the school since the 6th grade. “At first, I actually enjoyed it. But at the end, I started getting tired of it.”