‘It’s always a challenge’: Schools in Bushwick

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Bushwick High School

Jacob Silberberg

In 2006, the former Bushwick High School disappeared. Four smaller high schools that now occupy the building are posting higher graduation rates.


This is the fourth chapter of City Limits’ 2009 magazine issue on Bushwick, a community at the center of New York City’s map and the epicenter of 21st Century change.

The parents of Bushwick appear to be in love with their neighborhood schools. On the most recent surveys circulated by the city’s Department of Education, at least 90 percent of parents at every primary and middle school in the 11237 ZIP code—four elementary schools, two junior highs and one K-7 charter—said they were satisfied with the education their children were receiving. The vast majority were also happy with how much the schools involved parents and the amount of communication coming from the classroom.

On the standardized tests that have become the measure of schools’ success or failure in New York City, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level has increased across virtually every grade in every elementary and middle school in the area, both in math and language.

But Bushwick’s contribution to the city’s pre-Bloomberg image of educational failure emanated not from its elementary or middle schools but rather from the large building on Irving Avenue that hosted Bushwick High School. In the late 1990s, Bushwick High School held twice as many students as it was built for. The school graduated less than one-fourth of its seniors in 2001. Two years later, Advocates for Children, an education watchdog group, sued the Department of Education over an alleged practice by Bushwick High School administrators of forcing failing students out of the school but not counting them as dropouts. By then, the city had already decided to close Bushwick High School and replace it with newer, smaller schools in the same building—the same approach the DOE has taken with 20 other large high schools around the city.

Old Bushwick High School started to improve as time ran out. The graduation rate more than doubled in the school’s last two years, leaping from 23 percent to 55 percent from 2005 to 2006. And the school discharged—released without a diploma or a label of “dropout”—fewer kids; from 150 in the class of 2001 to 82 for 2005.

But the new schools that occupy Bushwick High School’s building are doing far better. Last year, the Bushwick High School for Social Justice awarded diplomas to 79 percent of its class, and the Academy for Urban Planning graduated 63 percent. The New York Harbor School, incongruously located in landlocked north Brooklyn pending a move to the borough’s coast this year, posted a 74 percent graduation rate. A fourth high school opened in the building last year, the Academy for Environmental Leadership, but it has yet to graduate anyone. A high school located elsewhere in 11237, the All City Leadership Secondary School started by Assemblyman Lopez, saw nearly 83 percent of its 2008 class graduate. On parent surveys, these high schools also uniformly get high marks—although in several schools, a substantial majority of parents never fill out the survey.

Graduation rates have been increasing citywide, probably thanks to a combination of overarching policies and school-by-school efforts. A lot of the new high schools have snazzy names and intriguing missions, but in their recent success, size may have mattered most.

* * * * *

When the alternative high school in Brooklyn where Mark Rush was teaching closed just as Chancellor Joel Klein was taking power in 2002, Rush learned that the International Schools Association was putting teams together to draw up plans for new high schools in the city. He and two colleagues came up with the idea of a school focused on social activism. “We were as surprised as anyone when the school was approved,” he recalls. “The thing that bound us together was this idea that social justice was important and could be central to organizing a school.” He set out to find a partner in the Bushwick neighborhood and learned that Make the Road New York was organizing a protest against, of all things, the move that opened the door to Rush’s school—the closure of Bushwick High School. The organization invited Rush to make his pitch to parents. Its membership voted to come aboard, and the school welcomed its first students in 2003.

“I think it’d be lying to say that we aren’t happily surprised by our results. It’s a great thing for the neighborhood that hundreds of graduates are coming out of here every year,” Rush says. But the unique mission of the school has been hard to integrate. “The first year, we wrote this interesting [curriculum] that became sort of mothballed because in ’03 there was the ramp-up curriculum and all sorts of mandates that came down from Klein that made it impossible to do some of the things we wanted to do,” he says.

So the school has had to find places in students’ schedules to squeeze in its mission. Students engage in weekly advisory sessions where social justice is discussed along with traditional school-guidance issues. Ninth- and 10th-graders engage in social-action projects through these advisories. Some of the campaigns are very practical. “The kids were complaining about the facilities of Bushwick High School when we first started,” Rush says. So their first action project was called Bathroom Justice. “The tagline was ‘Potty Power’ or something like that. A lot of bathrooms had been given over to storage or to safety-agent locker rooms. It had been narrowed down to two or three for whole buildings,” he recalls. The project resulted in opening up a couple more restrooms and getting better supplies for the rest.

Seniors take a social-justice seminar. Social-justice discussion works its way into other classes too: Science teachers, for example, talk about global warming.

The question is whether it’s that mission that’s producing more graduates and fewer dropouts. “I’d love to say it’s the theme. But plenty of kids come here just because it’s one of the schools on the campus,” Rush says. In reality, “it’s about the personal attention that kids get. The administration knows every single kid, so interventions can happen quickly and repeatedly. The way teachers know kids inside out and the advisory are a big part of that.”

* * * * *

One of the schools in the former Bushwick High building, the Harbor School, was at 100 percent capacity in the most recent figures supplied by the DOE. The other schools in the building have plenty of room. That’s a good thing for there students, but points to a broader concern: If Bushwick High was vastly overcrowded 10 years ago and its building is only 82 percent full now, the replacement high schools aren’t serving as many kids as their forerunner did. High school enrollment is down citywide, but not by that much.

“They definitely don’t serve as many students as the big high school did,” says Oona Chatterjee, the co-director of Make the Road. “But they serve more students well than the big high school did. So it’s a net gain to the community.”

None of the new schools in the old BHS building requires an admission test. Priority is given to students who attend an informational session. Some schools give secondary priority to students from the surrounding neighborhood, or at least the borough. But according to figures from the DOE, the share of students from 11237 at the BHS campus dropped from 33 percent in 2006, the last year the old high school was open, to 22 percent last year. The percentage of students from District 32 fell from 67 percent to 46 percent. (The DOE cautions that the last year at BHS might have been an aberration: As the school was shutting down, students from the neighborhood might have been more likely to stay enrolled there, temporarily inflating their share of the population.)

A sampling of comments by former B.H.S. students reveals more diversity of opinion that one might expect. “I attended Bushwick H.S. from 1996-1998 on an academic level it was OK, but the surrounding environment is very bad,” wrote Ralph Rosario on the website InsideSchools.org. Another alum, Bettina Morales, said she doesn’t have “any complaints about the teachers.” But Katherine Astudillo wrote, “I went to Bushwick back in 98 and it was bad, some of the teachers didn’t care just like the students and there was no discipline.”

“Bushwick had to close,” says Adam Schwartz, the local historian, who is a teacher at the Academy of Urban Planning, one of the replacement schools. “There were some good teachers who still can’t get jobs because of their association with it. The small schools that replaced it are much more inspired.”

A 2008 citywide report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that small schools had improved attendance and graduation rates and that their more personal scale was helpful to vulnerable students. But it cautioned that teacher and principal turnover was high and that attendance and graduation rates slipped in many small schools’ second year. (Rush, for one, says attendance has fallen at the High School for Social Justice; he is at a loss to explain why.) And the report noted that for all the talk about small schools, most city high school students remained in large high schools—which were struggling to accept the overflow of students from the closure of other big facilities.

Like the small-schools push, all the claims of improvement in the schools under Bloomberg have been met with counterclaims—some of them legitimate, others less so. There are very real questions, for instance, about what the trends in standardized-test scores mean. Do rising scores represent real gains in learning? What does it say about the city’s approach when state scores rise as much, or less, or more? What’s being sacrificed in the school’s instructional menu to permit all the attention on these make-or-break tests?

The meaning behind the testing numbers can be tough to tease out. The DOE typically highlights the changes in the percentage of students performing at or above grade level. These changes can be dramatic: At one school in 11237, P.S. 162, the share of eighth-graders scoring at or above grade level rocketed 271 percent from 2006 to 2009.

When it comes to their average score on the test, however, those students improved only 4 percent over the three years. Across 11237, no grade in any school saw its mean score on either English or math tests increase more than 6 percent during that period—a far more modest improvement than the headline numbers indicate. The reason for the disparity: Test designers adjust the passing score from year to year. That’s ostensibly done to account for variations in test difficulty, but the shifts are always scrutinized by skeptics of testing. The skeptics weren’t any more satisfied when, right before Labor Day, the DOE issued school progress reports that gave 97 percent of facilities citywide A’s or B’s—a blown curve if ever there was one (11237’s schools earned five A’s and one B).

But Elizabeth Rodriguez, the interim president of the local Community Education Council (which acts as the voice of parents in the school system) and a parent of two current public school students, says parents are indeed pleased with the progress.

“Our schools are doing so good, I don’t know where to begin,” she says, pointing to the end of social promotion and the increased number of teachers with certification.

A few schools in the district are, in fact overcrowded. Lopez’s All City Leadership school is at 103 percent capacity. Three of the area’s elementary schools are also over capacity.

Rodriguez, however, says administrators in the area are more worried about enrollment declining as families choose charter schools over regular public schools. Parents, meanwhile, are worried about charter schools cutting into other schools’ space, Rodriguez says. When the Achievement First charter school moved into the I.S. 383 public middle school building in 2008, some parents of the public school students were up in arms. Now there are concerns about where the city intends to locate a planned charter high school for the area. “Parents don’t mind a charter school as long as they’re not taking their space,” Rodriguez says.

Communication with parents also needs improvement, Rodriguez says. And one complaint she hears often is “The school spends so much time reviewing for the exams—most of their day, day after day, until the exam takes place.” She says of school administrators, “They have to realize that it’s too much pressure.”

* * * * *

But for some parents in 11237, communicating with their kids’ school is difficult—especially for recent immigrants, including the undocumented.

“People who are coming here for economic reasons often have very low literacy levels, and that often prevents them from being active advocates for their child and actively supporting their children,” says Laura Paris from the Coalition for Hispanic Family Services, which runs three after-school programs in the area. “Kids can get lost in the system. And parents cannot understand their kids’ homework, so they can’t help them. They can’t really effectively interface with the teachers.” She adds, “The big issue is that children become parentalized.” They speak better English, so they end up having to advocate for their parents—a lot of pressure for a child to bear.

For immigrants not here legally, the problems multiply. “We’re coming at it from a different place,” says Loren Miller, the director of an organization called Bushwick Impact that works on family literacy and parent empowerment. “Especially since so many of them are undocumented, they’re living under the radar.”

What’s more, Miller says, it’s difficult for parents who want to get involved to play a role in their schools. Many schools do not have active parents’ associations, and among those that do, the leaders are hard to track down online or in the phone book. “I think they don’t have the resources to really do it,” says Paris of schools and parental involvement. “There are so many pressures on these school administrators in terms of test scores and all that.” Complicating the job for schools in coming years is that many of Miller’s child clients with significant language delays aren’t getting the kind of speech or cognitive therapy they once did, because city budget cuts have led to stricter requirements for obtaining early intervention services. When they reach school age, those kids will be harder for teachers to reach.

These obstacles of language and experience hint at a larger political problem: In a neighborhood with demographic dynamics like 11237’s, the political accountability that is supposed to undergird mayoral control collapses.

In Bloomberg’s argument for the mayoral-control system, parents are supposed to enforce their educational expectations at the voting booth. If they don’t like the state of their kids’ schooling, this argument goes, they can punish the mayor because he is now responsible for it.

But in Bushwick, a lot of the parents won’t be casting votes this fall, if ever, because they are not citizens and are maybe not even documented. Lopez describes a recent event in the neighborhood: “We had a meeting of 60 parents. I asked who was a registered voter. Two raised their hands.”

Whether or not they vote, parents are only one constituency of the schools. In a handful of cases, the other stakeholders—teachers and students—were less sanguine in their survey responses than were moms and dads. At Junior High School 383, 39 percent of students did not think most school staff they saw each day actually knew their name. At the Academy of Urban Planning, for instance, only 57 percent of teachers thought order and discipline were adequately maintained. Some students expressed a particular concern about school-safety agents—NYPD employees who have multiplied in the schools under Bloomberg. There are 2,000 more safety agents in the high schools than there are guidance counselors.

The City Council is considering a bill that would create a system for addressing complaints about safety agent misconduct. Rush, for one, doesn’t feel he has enough control over the agents that patrol his building. “It’s not to say that I feel out of control,” the principal says, pointing to efforts over the years to improve the agents’ performance, including a roundtable discussion between students and guards. But turnover is a problem. “We have agents come and go all the time. We have a batch that seems especially young and very close in age to our kids, which is sometimes great and sometimes not,” he says. “It’s always a challenge.”

* * * *

What happens in 11237’s schools cannot be separated from what goes in the streets and homes around them. The High School for Social Justice employs two social workers, three guidance counselors and a teacher charged with improving attendance. “It would seem impossible to run the school without them because of the stuff kids come out of,” Rush says. “Kids living in poverty—there’s illnesses, there’s drug addiction, there’s incarceration.” The extra staff is needed, he says, “so they can focus on their needs so they can get out of here in four years.”

For all the impressive numbers coming out of Bushwick’s new high schools, most have only graduated two classes—a snapshot of success whose sustainability will be tested over time. Looming on the horizon is the disappearance of the local-high-school diploma. Rising state standards mean that by the class of 2012, only the more demanding Regents diploma will be available to graduating seniors. While high schools in 11237 and citywide have been awarding more Regents diplomas recently, local-diploma recipients still make up the majority of graduates. The High School for Social Justice, for one, would have graduated only half of its class of 2008—not 79 percent—if Regents diplomas were the only ones available.

Rush says his teachers have started the move away from reliance on the local diploma by raising expectations. A score of 55 on the Regents exams, while technically satisfying the requirement for a local diploma, was deemed not acceptable anymore, he says. “We had to change the vocabulary. That was definitely a first step.”

The next one will be a doozy.

Read the next chapter, or return to the series page.

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