Salma Nakhlawi started a Liberty and North Korea Club at the High School of Telecommunications Arts in Bay Ridge to raise both cash and consciousness around the issue of North Korean refugees in China.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Salma Nakhlawi started a Liberty and North Korea Club at the High School of Telecommunications Arts in Bay Ridge to raise both cash and consciousness around the issue of North Korean refugees in China.

Most New York City high schools don’t feature a “Liberty and North Korea Club,” but senior Salma Nakhlawi’s school does: Salma’s family may be from Morocco but her eyes are on the east (and on studying international relations in college); her club aims to raise both cash and consciousness around the issue of North Korean refugees in China.

It was easy, Salma, to find support among teachers and students at the High School of Telecommunications Arts in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. With so many kids and adults at school, at least a few shared her interests. Now, the club holds bake sales and other fundraisers to support North Korean refugees in China.

“Oh yeah, that funnel cake was good,” Luis Beato, another senior, says, savoring the memory as he stroked the trimmed line of his coal-black chinstrap, like a baby-faced professor. Luis likes Tele’s balance of structure and bustle: “Everyone’s social, even the teachers. I can talk to them about anything I want. They’re strict, but you don’t have to be serious all the time. ” Luis’ coursework is utterly serious, in fact; he’s taking AP statistics and AP world history this year, and loved Trig last year – “Once you get one thing, everything else tends to click. I love the way the teachers here teach.”

Blanca Melendez, another Tele 12th-grader, loved taking Forensic Science last year. “I never learned so much,” she says. “We disproved everything on TV!” The class, led by two science teachers, is offered as a complement to the straight bio-chem-physics science lineup – an alternative that again, requires a critical mass of students who want to step off the traditional track for a semester or two.

“We used anthropology, serology; we smashed bananas to learn about contusions,” Blanca says. It was so good, she even got to school early: “It was first period, and I would show up early so I could do more.” Blanca was born in Brooklyn but moved, as a young child, to Puerto Rico with her family; when she returned to New York, she was placed in bilingual classes until her English caught up with her inquisitive brain.

A quirky, individualized mix of student-created extracurriculars, demanding AP classes and off-beat electives might sound like the handiwork of the new, small high schools central to the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s education reforms – but Tele isn’t one of those. Nor is it once of the few dozen massive high schools left in the city’s system, which each enroll from 3,000 to 5,000 students (and, sometimes, more). Tele’s a different creature altogether, a “Goldilocks” school of not quite 1,300 students – small enough for concentrated, sustained individual attention and big enough to support a potent mix of varied coursework, clubs, and sports – which education experts have long recognized as the ‘sweet spot’ of secondary education.

That thinking has not been echoed by new-school planners at the New York City Department of Education through its decade of ongoing high-school reform. Unlike most of their peers in the class of 2013, who attend either new schools smaller than 600 students or traditional ones larger than 3,000, Salma, Luis and Blanca have lived their high-school years outside the scope of those changes – and are happy with the results.

Swapping Big for Small

Closing struggling schools is a broad-stroke Bloomberg reform that has generated continuous scrutiny.

In Bloomberg’s early years, DOE closed schools without public hearings or comment. When the City Council and others demanded that DOE listen to students, parents and teachers, public hearings commenced – rowdy affairs widely recognized by participants on all sides as pro-forma political theatre, where DOE opponents stage puppet shows, mic time is strictly limited to 2 minutes, and the Panel for Education Policy—majority-appointed by the mayor—consistently votes to approve the overwhelming majority of closures.

As the administration has closed scores of low-performing high schools and opened hundreds more small schools, it championed a smaller-is-better ethos once promoted by the William and Melinda Gates Foundation, prime funders and philosophical sponsors of the City’s small-schools movement, as well as the Carnegie Foundation.

In so doing, DOE planners were not persuaded by decades of academic research and education policy, which have consistently identified a “sweet spot” for high-school size, of roughly 1,000 students. (The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, moved away from advocating small schools because it was unsatisfied with the results.)

Tiny high schools promise intimacy and strong support but may have limited academic options; these young schools tend to graduate more students than other high schools, but often with less-rigorous high-school credentials that do not confer readiness for the challenge of college or other post-secondary education. Even the best small schools, like the consistently A-graded High School for Public Service: Heroes of Tomorrow, struggle with limited human and physical resources to offer enough classes to keep all their seniors in school for a full day’s schedule.

Large, traditional high schools offer a rich smorgasbord of activities, clubs, classes and sports. For some students, extra-curriculars keep them motivated; sports teams encourage academic performance because they require minimum averages to play. But these large schools can be anonymous environments where kids “fall between the cracks,” as poor graduation rates suggest.

Middle-sized schools— those that hover around 1,000 to 1,200 students—seem to be able to provide the kind of nurturing, student-aware environment that Bloomberg’s small schools aim for but also can muster the rich academics and varied extra-curriculars needed to challenge and engage the kids who go there.

Yet of the city’s 554 high schools (according to DOE stats), only 20 enroll between 1,000 and 1,300 students. Most public high schools enroll fewer than 600 students. Another two-dozen behemoth schools enroll more than 3,000 teens – some count upward of 4,000 or 5,000 students.

Students at right-sized schools like in Brooklyn say that size really matters, in their classes, their relationships with trusted adults, and in thinking about their futures.

It’s about choices

The fact that Blanca and Luis have access to a variety of AP classes at Tele is a direct function of the school’s size. Without a critical mass of motivated, interested and academically prepared students, Tele couldn’t afford to staff and run a dozen AP classes or more. Smaller schools, with fewer students, are necessarily limited in what they can offer: If only 120 seniors are enrolled, and only a fraction of those students are motivated to undertake advanced-level work, how many APs can a school offer?

The same holds for electives, which can be the most exciting classes students say they’ve taken – especially because electives don’t lead to Regents or AP exams, and can offer students a chance to learn for the sake of learning—without the obstacle of a high-stakes test.

For Blanca, the science elective was more than entertaining; it flamed an abstract academic interest into a passion. This year, Blanca’s taking AP Calculus, AP Chem, and AP English; she works after school at a local tutoring center.

“I love science and I love learning how the world works,” she says, fingering a gold crucifix on a chain. “I like thinking about ‘hmm, who [first] thought, one day, [that] maybe the planets revolve around the sun?’…”

In Tele’s broad hallways, students banter easily with school safety agents, who staff the entry desk and shoo kids into school in the early morning, when stragglers sometimes detour to local bodegas en route to school. There are no metal detectors; cell phones, officially banned by DOE edict, are not an issue.

Principal Phil Weinberg’s door is (literally) open, and students turn up at all hours, to borrow a computer in the adjacent conference room or just to say hello. The same holds for Tele’s college office, where two full-time counselors support roughly 400 seniors as they sort out their academic futures. Other teachers pinch-hit as informal advisers, sharing their undergrad experiences with their students. Peer guides, trained by college office staff, help other kids understand the Common App and individual school applications.

Two counselors for 400 kids is an enormous workload, compared with the counseling staff that’s available at many private schools, where the same number of staff would serve a graduating class of 75 or 100. But Tele’s counselors have a tiny caseload compared to their counterparts at other public schools.

At large schools like Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, two counselors work with a graduating class of 900 or more – and at Brooklyn’s big specialized high school, Brooklyn Tech, two counselors support the school’s 1,100 seniors through the college-application labyrinth.

(Students at all schools have guidance counselors – but many small schools don’t have dedicated college guidance staff. Guidance counselors are meant to support students throughout their high school years, while college-guidance staff focus singly on getting kids into college, running application and financial aid workshops, meeting with students and families, wrangling recommendation letters, funneling electronic records and physical paperwork to myriad schools, tracking a network of vital application and aid deadlines, and making sure kids meet them.)

Teachers are a steady part of Tele’s pre-college mix, students like Salma report. “They’re helpful with college applications,” she said in October. “Friends of mine at other schools haven’t even started!”

Weinberg has long been committed to getting his kids into good schools, often the same small, elite liberal-arts schools well beyond city borders that his faculty members have attended. At Tele, this is a “retail” effort: from the first weeks of ninth grade, teachers get to know their students, share information through regular teaching-team meetings, and generally focus on developing kids’ potential as college students.

Again, Tele’s size puts it in a guidance sweet spot: With dozens of faculty, the odds are greater that every student will find someone among the ranks to connect and identify with – and the responsibility for grooming a generation for post-secondary opportunity is shared by many.

Katherine Figueroa, Brooklyn-born and -bred, says she might like to go away for school, but that college was the last thing on her mind four years ago. She credits Tele with no less than turning her young life around.

“I love this school,” she told City Limits. “It changed how I was before. In middle school, I was not focused in school. I didn’t really go to school a lot. I was a very troubled person; I used to fight, a lot. Here, the students and the teachers – the seniors, they were inspiring. ‘For real,’ I said, ‘You come to school? You do your homework? You don’t like to party? ‘ They said, ‘There’s time to party – later, when you’re done with school.'”

“The teachers, they shaped me. I got more focused on my studies,” Katharine says, because she began to see beyond the moment to her future.

Luis, hustling off to his next class, expressed his Tele takeaway succinctly: In a school with all kinds of students and teachers, and lots going on, he says he learned that his actions and intentions matter. “If I stay in the right direction,” Luis said, “I have opportunities.”

This story is the second in a year-long series on the final graduating class of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. To read part one, please click here.