Who Killed John Dewey High?

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Junior Jeremy Lock, 18 (dressed in black) and freshman Patrick Green, 16, leaving Dewey High School in Brooklyn on Friday, June 22. Greene, who studies audiovisuals, produced a video called <a href=“Fight for Dewey.” But barring a last-minute change, Dewey will graduate its final class on June 26.” width=”600″ height=”400″>

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

Junior Jeremy Lock, 18 (dressed in black) and freshman Patrick Green, 16, leaving Dewey High School in Brooklyn on Friday, June 22. Greene, who studies audiovisuals, produced a video called “Fight for Dewey.” But barring a last-minute change, Dewey will graduate its final class on June 26.

On April 26, 1963, a dozen New York City principals went into seclusion in Hershey, Pennsylvania. They emerged 10 days later with a plan for what was to be one of the boldest experiments undertaken by the city’s public schools, a blueprint for a high school that would foster independent study, replace the letter grade system, extend the school day and encourage students to take charge of their own educations.

On June 26, that experiment—tattered and eroded over more than 40 years—will come to an end as John Dewey High School in Gravesend graduates its final class. Earlier this month, all Dewey teachers received letters telling them their jobs no longer exist. Barring action by an arbitrator, when school reopens in September, the building on Avenue X will house a new school dubbed Shorefront High School of Arts and Sciences at John Dewey Campus.

Few in Dewey’s early days would have expected this denouement. For years, Dewey’s program attracted press coverage and visitors from across the country. “It is looked upon by school officials as a model for the future and by others as an island of hope in a sea of trouble,” Paul Montgomery wrote in The Times in 1971. As recently as 2000, the U.S. Department of Education selected Dewey as a showcase high school, and in 2008 US News and World Report awarded Dewey a silver medal in its ranking of American high schools.

“Dewey should go down as the greatest experiment on the secondary level in the 20th century,” says Bob DeSena, founder of the Council for Unity, a group started at Dewey that works to reduce violence in schools and communities.

So what happened? Who killed John Dewey High School?

Shut and open

John Dewey High School, of course, is not alone. Since 2002, the Bloomberg administration has shut or begun phasing out about 140 schools, many of them, like Dewey, large high schools. The administration says that as of September, it will have opened 589 new schools. About 200 are high schools, most of them small.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and officials at the Department of Education (DOE) staunchly defend the policy. The mayor crowed about the openings of new schools at a press conference in April, calling the results “really amazing,” and adding, “It is an achievement that nobody, nobody, would have thought possible.”

There’s little doubt that many of the shuttered schools deserved to close, and that some of the new schools have excelled. But the school closings have proved wrenching for many New Yorkers, sparking passionate protests from students, parents and teachers. Critics have charged that the DOE is so eager to close schools that it has ignored other, less-draconian solutions. “They are using schools closings totally inappropriately. School closings should be a last resort,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU.

In some cases, critics say, the DOE has–under the banner of improving a facility—actually abetted a school’s decline. “DOE has a list of schools they think are not going to make it … and they insure that their predictions come true,” says Norm Fruchter, senior scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The department may place more troubled students, students with special needs and English language learners at the shaky school—moves that can further bring down its graduation rate and test results.

The closings have become an annual ritual. This February, the city approved closing all or part of 23 schools. In addition, when the administration and the United Federation of Teachers failed to reach agreement on a plan to evaluate teachers, Bloomberg announced he would designate 33 struggling schools as “turnaround” schools. Under a federal program, this meant DOE would shut the schools and replace up to half their staffs.

Initially, many saw Bloomberg’s move as a bluff designed to win concessions from the teachers union and sharply criticized it. “There’s a fight going on here that has nothing to do with what’s going on at the school,” state Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch, usually a Bloomberg ally, said last winter of the mayor’s closure plans. “It’s a labor dispute between labor and management.”

Bloomberg eventually spared several “turnaround” schools. But on April 26, the Panel for Education Policy, a body controlled by the mayor, voted to close 24 schools on the original list of 33 and reopen them in new guises and with many new teachers in September. One of those schools was Dewey.

Education reform, ’60s style

In the 1960s city officials saw Dewey not as a problem but as a solution. “There has been an increasing dissatisfaction with the goals, methods and results of high school education,'” the group of principals wrote after the Hershey meeting. “How can our high schools do an even better job? What changes must be made in philosophy, organization, curriculum and teaching methods if they are to meet the imperatives of our times.”

The school that opened with 1,000 students in September 1969 tried to answer those questions. Named for the American philosopher whose theories form the basis for much of progressive education, it featured a longer day, with students spending 25 percent of their time in independent study or other activities. Resource centers, equipped with books and other materials, were set up as places where students could work on their own or get extra help. The school also had science labs, music practice rooms and art studios as well as a large outside campus that students could use freely. Dewey became home to theatrical productions, various publications and a marine biology program whose students took samples from Jamaica Bay and then pressed the federal government for stricter regulation of discharges into the wetland’s waters.

The school offered a plethora of novel courses–on such subjects as the crime and punishment, the emerging city, the Holocaust and the American Dream –and independent study allowed students an even broader selection. Underscoring it all was a belief, as a 1982 documentary on Dewey put it, that youngsters should “be responsible for their education and approach it with zest and concern.”

Dewey upended the standard building blocks of high school. Instead of semesters it offered courses in seven-week cycles. Students could graduate after two to six years. Letter grades did not exist. Dewey, an early teacher recalled in the documentary, “freed me to let go of every shibboleth … I had about public education”

Because the school’s approach might not suit all teenagers, students had to apply. The school selected students through a process aimed at guaranteeing those accepted would have a range of abilities and reflect the diversity of Brooklyn.

Today many look back fondly on those early days. Naomi Berger graduated in 1975 and some 30 years later helped form the John Dewey Alumni Association to keep the Dewey model alive. “The opportunities were endless,” she recalled. “By virtue of getting a rich experience you were prepared for college or the workforce or beyond when you went to Dewey.”

Decline and fall

Dewey’s descent was slow.

“There wasn’t any one thing that brought Dewey down. There was a multiplicity of things,” DeSena says.

Even in the early days, he added, there was “a dark side … There were a lot of kids bringing conflict from the neighborhood into the school.” And of course there were budget cuts as the fiscal crisis hit in the 1970s.

By most accounts, though, the major changes came during the 1990s, a decade not kind to the city’s schools as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani clashed with chancellors, lashed out at teachers and cut spending.

Marianne Stephan, who is active in the Dewey alumni association, attended Dewey at that time. “When I went to Dewey, I met people who brought me out into the type of person I became,” says Stephan, who went on to get a master’s degree in public administration. “I would not have done that without people at Dewey who care.”

When she started high school, many key elements of the Dewey program remained. But she says, “The late ’90s were when things started to change for the worse and they continued to go downhill.” According to Stephan, “new teachers came in, new administrators came in that didn’t necessarily understand the ideas of the old administration, the old teachers, even the students … Things just weren’t the same and it was very depressing being there.”

Indeed, the leadership of the school changed several times, with at least eight principals (one acting) in 35 years. Michael Drillinger, who graduated in 1974, now heads the Dewey alumni association. If an innovative school like Dewey is to succeed, he believes, it must have “the energy of a single person or small group of people.” For the first couple of decades, he says, Dewey had that “very strong leadership from the top.”

Meanwhile, one strong leader, former assistant principal Saul Bruckner, had replicated much of Dewey at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, an arguably safer and, for many prospective students more convenient neighborhood. Many students who once would have gone to Dewey opted for Murrow instead, says Clara Hemphill, founder and senior editor of Inside Schools

The final decade

Bloomberg came to office promising to be the education mayor. But the renewed interest in city schools did nothing to help Dewey and many other large high schools. The dismantling of the Dewey experiment continued.

As Bloomberg instituted his choice system for high schools—requiring most students in the city to apply to high school rather than being able to attend a neighborhood school— 100 or 200 students a year who were not matched with any of their chosen schools” were dumped into Dewey.” according to a former teacher, now retired. Multiply that by four grades, and that left Dewey with “800 kids who could not handle the concept,” she says.
The culinary and dance programs ceased to exist, reportedly victims of budget cuts. Publications stopped publishing. “It became like a Jenga game,” says Berger. “Their answer to every problem is to remove another piece until the tower falls down.”

Some thought the principal at the time, Barry Fried, was not up to the challenge. “He did not have a strong, solid commitment to the Dewey model,” Drillinger says, and was “not the person to wage battles with the Board of Ed or the Department of Ed.”

By most accounts, problems increased at Dewey as the city started closing large high schools in Brooklyn in 2003. The demise of nearby Lafayette High School, sent more students with little interest in Dewey to Dewey. Overcrowding and discipline problems followed, Samuel Freedman reported in The Times. “Since Lafayette began to close down, we’ve had an influx of students who are unprepared. It’s destroying our entire school,” Chung Chan, a social studies teacher, told Freedman.

The longtime teacher agrees. There were problems in the cafeteria, she says, and it became difficult to determine who was cutting class and who was on independent study. “It was very hard. It was very sad,” she says.

In 2007-2008, the first year of the Lafayette phase out, Dewey had 78 more ninth graders—more than two classes worth –than it had the previous September. Also in 2007, the number of suspensions at Dewey rose sharply—from 153 to 250 Attendance dipped from 87 percent to 84 percent. Both numbers, though, improved the following year.

The graduation rate declined from 71 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2007-08, according to a 2009 report by the Center for New York City Affairs. It found that after Lafayette closed, Dewey attracted fewer high-achieving students and more “poorly prepared for high school,” including recent immigrants with little formal education.

In 2008, a student brought a gun to Dewey, sparking a lockdown at the school. Later the school installed scanners. Students had to spend the school day inside the building, leaving the surrounding campus largely unused.

Eventually fewer students opted to attend Dewey. Between 2003-04 and 2010, enrollment dropped by 19 percent.

Dewey’s woes mirrored those that have afflicted many other large schools during the Bloomberg era—in the Bronx where a succession of closings led to the shutting of Lehman High School this year and along the Brooklyn/Queens shore, where Rockaway, South Shore, Beach Channel High School and now Sheepshead Bay and John Adams have all tumbled.

“The prevailing philosophy under 10 years of Bloomberg is small schools are the answer to high school problems,” says Hemphill, an author of the center’s report. “What DOE hasn’t come up with is a strategy for big schools, which still serve many thousands of New York City teens.”

As big schools close and small ones open, many of the remaining large schools find themselves unable to attract the top applicants a school needs to succeed. And so, Hemphill says, “the stronger schools get stronger, the weaker schools get weaker.”

Meanwhile, Dewey, like all schools, grappled with cuts in funding. “When you cut somebody’s budget and then dump a lot of kids there that no one wants to deal with, they’re setting you up to fail,” DeSena says. (Spending for school rose sharply during the first years of the Bloomberg administration. Since the recession, spending continued to increase to cover pension costs and debt service, but classroom programs were cut across the city. At Dewey, per pupil spending has inched up slightly, but an analyst with the Independent Budget Office, said that rise has been more than offset by an increase in teacher salaries.)

By all accounts, Dewey began to show signs of stress. The state targeted it as a persistently low achieving school.

In 2010, the United Federation of Teacher found that 135 classes at Dewey had more students than the number allowed by the teacher contract—the third highest of any school on the city.

Students lagged behind their counterparts in similar schools in accumulating credits. In 2008-09, 32 percent of students responding to a DOE survey said they did not feel safe in Dewey’s halls and bathrooms. (This number declined to 23 percent in 2010-11.)

Visitors to the campus saw little evidence of the original Dewey program. “For an ostensibly progressive institution, Dewey has many classrooms that are traditional,” Inside Schools reported in 2007. “Most rooms were near-barren of student-made work or art, and hallways, lined by disused lockers, had bulletin boards filled largely by generic or pre-fab graphics.”

“There was a lot of room for improvement,” says Noguera, who met with faculty and alumni. “The data showed it, and the teachers were aware of it.”

Alumni, faculty and others tried to turn things around. City Councilmember Domenic Recchia, who graduated from Dewey in 1977, tried repeatedly—and without success—to get DOE to replace the principal. In November 2010, Friends of Dewey, including Berger and DeSena, issued a plan calling for curriculum changes, revitalization of the Resource Centers, restoration of the dance program and the development of new programs in a number of areas.

There was, though, only so much the group could do, says Noguera. “No one was providing leadership,” he says.

The state education department identified Dewey as a persistently-low achieving school and, in 2011, put it on a list of schools the state believed should be replaced. In May 2011, the city announced it would seek a management change for Dewey and 21 other schools and a federal grant to help fund the process. In September, that money was approved. But then, in January 2012, Bloomberg announced his plan to shut the 33 struggling schools. Two months later, DOE did what many Dewey advocates had sought for years. It removed Fried, replacing him with Kathleen Elvin.

Elvin’s work at Dewey has garnered considerable praise, but many wonder why it took the department so long to act. For years, the department “fiddled as Rome burned,” says Tom Bennett, a Brooklyn representative for the UFT, “Why wouldn’t you have taken the obvious first step to replace the principal?” Bennett continued. “I resist conspiracy theories, [but] it does appear that they did not want the school to improve.”
(The department in its written response to questions about Dewey did not answer questions regarding Fried. It also did not respond to similar questions from Recchia and others at an April hearing. An attempt to reach Fried was not successful.)

With Dewey’s days apparently numbered, student, staff and other in the community took the steps that have become hallmarks of school closing season in New York. They staged protests and spoke out at hearings, arguing that whatever shortcomings Dewey had, DOE should fix the school rather than shut it.

The school still has fans. Deion Harrington, who is graduating from Dewey this year, says, “It’s breathtaking being at Dewey.” Dewey let him explore his interests. Teachers provided extra help and if that wasn’t enough, he says, they called in another faculty member: “No matter where you were sent, it was like family.”

Christopher Reyes, then a 10th grader, told of similar experiences when he spoke at the April hearing on Dewey’s future. “I walked into this school and became interested in a subject which I actually hated before, and that was history, and now I love history, I can’t get enough of it. I walked into my math class and I actually liked it, because in ninth grade I had a teacher who would spend his entire lunch break with me just talking about math, history and math … because he just cared that much.”

Dewey’s supporters say the efforts to fix the school had already begun to bear fruit. The four-year graduation increased from 51.2 percent for the class of 2009 to 66.0 percent for the class of 2011. The percentage of Dewey graduates deemed “college” ready—23.3 in 2011—exceeded the city average of 20.7 percent, although that number represented a decline from 2010.

Responding to arguments from Dewey supporters at the hearing, deputy chancellor Marc Sternberg said Dewey’s graduation rate still lagged when the school was compared to schools with similar student populations. Sternberg also noted the sharp declines in enrollment at Dewey “suggest a decline in parent and student satisfaction with the services rendered here.”

The new Dewey

Shorefront High School will open as a single large high school with eight so-called small learning communities—clusters of 400 or so students with 25 teachers. Five will be based on current programs at Dewey. The school will have three new communities: visual and media arts, theater arts and dance and robotic and space science.

Counselors will be assigned to each learning community. The new school, DOE has said, will build upon “elements of the existing school that support rigorous learning and help students attain higher levels of confidence and achievement.”

The resource centers seem all but certain to fade into history, although Vincent Brevetti of the Institute for Student Achievement, Dewey’s educational partnership organization, says the small learning communities may provide the kind of support for students that the resource centers once did.

The scanners, though, will remain in place for the time being. And, unlike in the past when people had to apply to Dewey, the new school will take “over-the-counter” students, the often challenging teenagers who show up midyear, many having had trouble in their previous schools.

The biggest question-marks concern who will attend Shorefront and who will teach there. While the department did not provide figures on applications to Dewey, many ninth graders do not apply to schools with uncertain futures. Brevetti says he hopes any shortfall in students will be temporary. “If we do well by the school, it will be a very attractive option,” he says.

The school, he says, should be able to meet the needs of even low-performing students. “If you engage a student you can bring out the best in them,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of the school to spark that kind of engagement if the student doesn’t come in with it.”

All teachers at Dewey have lost their jobs. Those wishing to remain must apply and face interviews. By all accounts, this has been stressful and upsetting for almost all faculty. Senior teachers in particular worry the process will hurt them. “Principals have a vested interest in hiring the least experienced teachers because they’re the least expensive,” Bennett says. (The UFT filed suit to stop the personnel changes, and an arbitrator is expected to rule soon.)

Teachers not finding work at Shorefront would enter the Absent Teacher Reserve pool. Many would probably eventually find jobs at other schools.

Despite the upheaval, DeSena, for one, sees some hope in the plan. “There are very positive things in it that will be attractive to kids,” he says. “They’ve tried to diversify it, and I think it might work.”

Drillnger also expressed optimism. “What they’re planning to offer in the fall is, in fact, better than the program as it exists today and as it has existed for the last five years,” he says.

There are, of course, no guarantees. In the past few years, DOE has shut down some small schools that once opened to much fanfare. Some buildings, such as John Jay in Park Slope and Erasmus in Flatbush, have gone through many permutations.

The department, though, remains strongly committed to its program of closings and openings. Officials cite a report by MDRC, which concluded, “It is possible, in a relatively short span of time, to replace a large number of underperforming public high schools in a poor urban community and, in the process, achieve significant gains in students’ academic achievement and attainment.”

A policy brief released by MRDC this year seems to back this up. It found that all groups of students—black, Hispanic, low performing, male, female, low income—in one of the small schools was more likely to graduate from high school than similar students not attending one of the small schools.

Critics, though, charge that while many small schools have had good results, their student bodies do not reflect the complexity of the city’s student population. A study by the Annenberg Institute concluded that, when compared to the schools they replaced, the new small schools were likely to have more students who were proficient in reading and math and less likely to have over-age or special education students and English language learners.

And earlier this year, the Coalition for Education Justice found that the new small schools at many campuses had fewer special education students in self-contained classes than the big schools that formerly occupied the same buildings. (Students in these self-contained classes are far less likely to graduate than other students.) While 10 percent of those attending South Shore High School were in self-contained classes, for example, only 1 percent of the schools now on the site are.

DOE denies the small schools have cherry-picked their students. “Our new small schools on the whole are serving more black, Hispanic, and students with disabilities than the schools they replaced, and than the citywide average. We feel very strongly about this because people often claim otherwise, and it’s absolutely not true,” a spokesman wrote in an email.

As each side cites numbers to bolster its case, the puzzle remains whether a high school with many very challenging high school students—people who enter over-age, those not speaking English, those emerging from the criminal justice system—can meet DOE’s standards for success and survival.

If more than 40 percent of students entering a high school have low test scores, Fruchter says, “you substantially reduce the graduation rates of the total school. … You have to control your school composition so you don’t concentrate kids with low skills”

Whatever happens at Dewey, parts of this story seem certain to be repeated next school year. Bloomberg has dismissed a rumor that he would close 75 schools during his last year in office, but he told reporters he certainly would shut some. How many? ”Pick a number,” he says. “It’s less than the total number of schools that are in this city and greater than zero.”

  • Tlan

    Dear Gail,

    I really appreciate this piece as it highlights the corrupt practices that were brought upon by the DOE to attack and dismantle Dewey, but I kindly ask–if you please could–to add a brief excerpt/note at the introduction of this piece that states that this piece was written just before the DOE lost the lawsuit filed by Dewey teachers and the UFT to close Dewey, hence Dewey remains open. While this article is extremely informative to people who need to know the story behind Dewey’s past demise, it is misleading to prospective students and applicants to the school. Since this article was written, Dewey has flourished tremendously. It would be a pity to sway people away from Dewey’s revival because of a lack of chronological context. Thank you so much.