Ladonna Powell, 19, lives on her own, works at a bakery in Manhattan to pay the rent, and attends high school classes at Brooklyn Comprehensive Night High School because they fit into her schedule. Powell says the school, one of only two night high schools citywide, is important for struggling students who can’t make it to a day school but want to earn a diploma.
“Each person has their own problems,” she said. “We need this school to stay open. It’s a second chance.”
The public school is slated to close, however. The city announced in December that Brooklyn Comprehensive, which opened in 1990 to help students who had trouble in a traditional high school setting, would close this June. Teachers and students said they felt stunned and betrayed. The teachers’ union mounted a lobbying campaign, and by late February the staff was told the school would remain open until June 2008.
The city says five new “transfer schools,” designed for “overage, under-credited” students, will replace Brooklyn Comp’s services. But while they will have some nighttime classes, it looks like they may not have an after-hours curriculum as complete as Brooklyn Comprehensive, which has the full high school curriculum except art and P.E. The other similarly complete nighttime school in operation is the Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, located on Second Avenue near Stuyvesant Town. The Department of Education cites “low demand” as the reason for closing the night school.
“Attendance has dropped significantly in recent years,” said Melody Meyer, a department spokesperson. She pointed specifically to an abysmal 33 percent attendance record at Brooklyn Comp last year.
The school’s former principal, Malaika Holman Bermiss, says “attendance was always horrendous.” But she and some current teachers counter that the attendance rate dropped precipitously after the school was moved from Midwood High School to South Shore High School in Sept. 2004, due to space constraints at Midwood.
Indeed, school attendance records seem to support Bermiss’s argument. Brooklyn Comp had a 66 percent attendance rate in 2003-04, its last at Midwood. That’s not too far from the 72 percent average for transfer schools in the city. But in the next school year – the first at South Shore – attendance fell to 49 percent. Then it dropped to 33 percent last year. Meanwhile, attendance at traditional high schools citywide is 90 percent.
South Shore, which itself suffers poor attendance and is slated to close, is a large white building at the intersection of Flatlands and Ralph Avenues in Canarsie. A 20-minute bus ride from the nearest subway stop, the school is remote to reach even by car. In addition to the long commute for a student population scattered throughout Brooklyn, teachers and students do not feel safe, particularly at 10 p.m. when the school day ends. The day begins at 4 p.m.
“Muggings have been bad,” according to English teacher Sharon Pearce, in an observation echoed by several others. “Some parents won’t allow their kids to come to school any more,” says the 14-year Brooklyn Comp veteran.
Current principal Catherine Bruno-Paparelli did not respond to requests for comment, and officials declined to show a reporter around the school.
Charles Turner, Brooklyn district representative at the United Federation of Teachers, called moving a night school to such a remote location “a thoughtless decision.” He believes Brooklyn Comp has become “collateral damage” of the decision to shutter South Shore, one of five schools that DOE announced in December would close.
Pearce finds it ironic that the city decided to close Brooklyn Comp and send students to transfer schools, which accommodate up to 250 students. “We were one of the new ‘small schools’ before there was the expression,” she said.
Bermiss fears that a new school, even one that looks like Brooklyn Comp but meets during the day, will miss out on helping a certain sliver of students. “It’s a time frame issue,” she said. “Some of our students had neither children or jobs, but what they needed is what we offered them at 7 p.m. in the evening.”
She believes Brooklyn Comp was hampered by not ever having its own facility. Before she retired in 2005 after 34 years in the city school system, Bermiss did propose an expansion of Brooklyn Comp that would have included a dedicated facility. Now she hopes that the extension through next school year will allow the teachers and staff at Brooklyn Comp to keep the school going in a different format and location.
“My concern is that there be a full-time night school in Brooklyn to meet the needs of students,” Bermiss said.
Student Natalie White, 19, certainly agrees. White started at Brooklyn Comp in September after she “messed up” at Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush. Close personal attention from teachers quickly helped White gain confidence in herself.
“I never got an A in any class before,” she said. But after getting help from teachers in English and Spanish and A’s in both classes, she said, “I kind of knew I had some kind of potential.”
However, White knew she would not have enough credits to graduate by June 2007, so she stopped going to school. “I thought it was the end,” she said. “I was kind of thinking of giving up or going to another school.”
Now that another school year has been added, White says she will return and hopes to have enough credits for her diploma by January 2008.