Class Dismissed

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Amalia Martinez felt assured that her 15-year-old twins, Ernestine and Edgar, were going to start ninth grade this September just a few blocks from her apartment, attending one of the new small schools located in the Irving Avenue building that until now housed Bushwick High School. The Bushwick School for Social Justice, the Harbor School and the Academy for Urban Planning have opened this fall with classes of ninth graders, while Bushwick High School’s 10th, 11th and 12th graders finish out their final years. The new academies aim to transform a dismal school of last resort, with a 23 percent graduation rate, into a home for quality education.

These new schools are part of New Visions’ network of 42 New Century High Schools, designed to replace large, failing schools like Bushwick. New Visions received a $30 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Institute, and with community partners it opened its first 17 of these small new high schools last year. New Visions recently received an additional $29.2 million to create 30 more small schools as part of a $51.2 million grant from Gates, and Mayor Bloomberg has said that he hopes to create an additional 200 new small schools.

But as they move into the old buildings, the small schools are finding themselves in a big squeeze. The new Bushwick schools have 375 seats, just over half the number of slots for ninth graders that Bushwick High School had. So while the schools give priority to neighborhood kids, not all students who apply can get in. This September, Bushwick’s student-transfer office turned away more than 300 ninth graders who tried to enroll there–including Edgar Martinez.

He discovered that although his family received paperwork back in June saying that he was registered at the Harbor School (and his sister at the School for Social Justice), when the school year started he wasn’t on the Harbor School roster. Bushwick’s transfer office passed Edgar along to another school’s office–then another, and another, for weeks. In late September, Edgar still didn’t have a school to go to. “I’d rather be home-schooled,” he says. Edgar worries he’ll be far behind, especially since he’s in special ed.

Students who didn’t make it into small schools are being sent out of the neighborhood to remaining big ones in Brooklyn and Queens–Franklin Lane, Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Canarsie. Even these schools are at capacity and turning away students with transfer orders, saying that the students aren’t zoned for them. (At Grover Cleveland, in Ridgewood, Queens, a Bushwick parent says an administrator told her that Brooklyn kids aren’t admitted because “they’re bad kids and we don’t take bad kids.”)

The community organizing group Make the Road By Walking is a partner with New Visions and Brooklyn College in creating the School for Social Justice. Now Make the Road is taking on the tough question of what’s going to happen to students locked out of Bushwick. It has convened the Community Coalition for Bushwick High School, a collaborative of parents, teachers, students, churches and other neighborhood organizations. Make the Road codirector Oona Chatterjee agrees that it’s exciting for the small schools to have students who want to be there. But, she adds, “School choice means people should have a choice–including a school close to home.”

The coalition crunched the numbers for Brooklyn and estimated that 1,600 seats were lost among the three Brooklyn schools–Wingate and Prospect Heights are the other two–that broke into small ones this year. Demand for the seats in the new schools is extremely high: In the Bronx, 15,000 students applied for 3,000 New Visions slots.

The introduction of the small high schools comes as the whole system is going through an administrative overhaul. It’s been a chaotic autumn. At least 10,000 students were still in limbo at the beginning of the school year–either because they didn’t want or didn’t know their assigned school. Transfer centers were set up to refer students to high schools with seats, but some centers started without phones or computers. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s office and the organization Advocates for Children have fielded a flood of calls from parents having difficulty placing their kids.

“Who takes responsibility?” asks Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children. “Who does the numbers? Nobody said small schools are a bad idea, but the problem is the fast timeline.” The current round of schools was announced in April.

Some administrators are blaming the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows students in failing schools to switch to better ones. But most of the 8,000 transfer requests were for middle schoolers, not students in high school. The bigger problem is a demographic bulge: an additional 5,000 to 7,000 ninth grade students entering high school this year. “It’s hard to nail down exactly where these 7,000 students are coming from,” says Department of Education spokesperson Michelle McManus. She posits that the new small schools have attracted students previously in private and parochial schools, especially those whose parents can’t afford tuition any longer.

John Lawhead, who teaches English as a Second Language at Bushwick, says he sees economic pressures swell enrollment, but in a different way. When the economy was better, Lawhead saw more low-income teens take jobs instead of going to school. “If there’s an opportunity for a 14- or 15-year-old kid to work,” he says, “their family wants them to work.”

The president of New Visions, Bob Hughes, knows that introducing new schools puts strains on the system’s capacity. “Reform can’t wait until we have enough seat space,” he explains. Stemming the citywide epidemic of dropouts, he says, must be the top priority: “Kids only go through high school once, and we can’t afford to lose more students.” Hughes thinks the new schools are a big gain for Bushwick kids, noting that back when it was still a big, failing school, only about 50 out of 700 ninth-graders had actually selected Bushwick High as their first choice.

But as hundreds of Bushwick students seek schooling elsewhere, members of the community coalition want to make sure the teens don’t become casualties of innovation. Many are extremely disadvantaged to begin with. Of 687 students at Bushwick this year, 565 are repeating ninth grade, and 110 of them are older than 17. About 30 percent of Bushwick students are classified as English Language Learners, and 19 percent require special ed. “In many cases,” Chatterjee says, “the students being sent to schools far from home are the most vulnerable students–the ones who didn’t go to class and didn’t know about the new schools, or whose parents are not involved.”

“Even in zoned high schools, there’s a pecking order, and Bushwick was at the bottom,” explains Lawhead. “Neighboring schools, like Cleveland and Boys & Girls, with more political clout, were able to turn away kids, especially ESL and special ed.” Many of them, Lawhead notes, wound up in Bushwick.

The community coalition is pressing Michele Cahill, the Department of Education’s senior counselor for education policy, to make it easier for students to stay in Bushwick, and to secure more ESL and programs for older students. The department has agreed to meet monthly with community residents.

But as Edgar Martinez continues to spend his days waiting in offices, the only education he’s getting is one in bureaucracy. He can’t help but worry: “Maybe they’ll forget about me.”

Amy Zimmer is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.