OLDER HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS LOSING SEATS

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As the Bloomberg administration plays God with the city school system, education officials are quietly pushing a plan to reorganize six alternative high schools for the system’s oldest and hardest to serve students — a plan which could severely cut back seats for older students in the future.

Department of Education officials have told administrators at the Bushwick Outreach school — one of six city schools for students ages 17 to 21 with very few school credits — that they plan to merge their program with the Outreach schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant and lower Manhattan in September. While each program would remain in its current location and continue to serve kids with disciplinary problems, they would all be required to open their doors to high school students of all ages, not just to those over 16, and to institute a uniform curriculum.

While the Outreach programs have a number of critics who call the schools troubled, staff and students at Bushwick Outreach say the school has been a much better alternative to their neighborhood school, and fear that the proposed change is certain to limit the seats available to older students in the future, since the building is already at capacity. The space crunch could push those students to the streets or to already overburdened GED programs intended for adults [see “Learning Disabled,” City Limits magazine, February 2002].

“Bushwick is a poor neighborhood with a big lack of services for young people,” said Jesus Gonzalez, 17, a Bushwick Outreach student who is leading a petition drive to start their own school. “If you take away Bushwick Outreach, you’re really hurting the future of a lot of young people.”

In 1980, then-Schools Chancellor Frank Macchiarola started the Outreach schools — two in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and one each in the Bronx and Queens — to take in students ages 17 to 21 who have a record of disciplinary problems and have too few credits to get into other programs like night and day schools.

Since then, however, the success of those schools has been mixed. “There might be exceptions, but most of the Outreach centers, in my opinion, are horrible,” said Jill Chaifetz, director of Advocates for Children, an education watchdog. “In most cases, there is virtually no curriculum, the students aren’t getting their homework, and the kids aren’t getting any credit-bearing classes.”

Add to that the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002: This law states that schools that do not grant traditional degrees are barred from receiving federal funding. The Outreach schools have specific graduation requirements, but they do not issue diplomas.

Still, Bushwick students and parents say their program should stay as is. While only a few students finish on the traditional four-year timeline, the school graduates over 100 students a year, nearly one-third of its student body. At nearby Bushwick High School, the four-year graduation rate in 2001 was just 24 percent.

So the students, with the support of local nonprofit group Make the Road By Walking, are circulating a petition to call for an accredited, independent school that issues its own diplomas. Students, parents and teachers would design a curriculum that keeps Latino- and Afro-centric elements, and older students would remain the focus.

“The thing is that the teachers here are really there for you. They are not just there to pick up a paycheck,” said student Angelica Payano, 18. “Instead of shutting us down, they should be seeing how it works and take our model to other schools.”