Older Kids Lose Out

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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 that could eliminate 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 few school credits–that they plan to merge their program in September with two other Brooklyn schools, Two Bridges Academy and Bedford-Stuyvesant Outreach. Students at Flushing Outreach say their teachers told them their school will also be reconfigured in the fall.

Each program would remain in its current location and continue to serve kids with disciplinary and attendance problems, but would be required to enroll 16-year-olds and to institute a uniform curriculum.

Department of Education officials would not comment for this story.

While critics of the Outreach programs call the schools troubled, staff and students at Bushwick Outreach say their school has been a much better alternative to their neighborhood school. They fear the proposed change will 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.

“Bushwick is a poor neighborhood with a big lack of services for young people,” says 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 schools to serve dropouts or kids on the verge of leaving school, many of whom have a record of disciplinary problems and too few credits to get into other programs like night schools.

Since then, the success of those schools has been mixed. “There might be exceptions, but most of the Outreach centers, in my opinion, are horrible,” says 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, which bars schools that do not grant traditional diplomas from receiving federal funding. The Outreach schools have specific graduation requirements but do not issue degrees; to get one, students must bring their Outreach transcripts to the school they previously attended.

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 with the support of Make the Road By Walking, a local nonprofit, the students have been circulating a petition calling for an accredited, independent school at which students, parents and teachers would design a curriculum focusing on Latino and African cultures, and keep focus on older students.

“The teachers here are really there for you,” says student Angelica Payano, 18. “Instead of shutting us down, they should be seeing how it works and take our model to other schools.”