At Bronx Vocational School, Concern Over Plan for Charter
Citing academic failures, the city has proposed closing the construction trade program at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, a 78-year-old vocational school in the South Bronx.
But the school the Department of Education plans to put in place of the program, the 18-month-old New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries, has had its own issues. Its founder is facing federal charges that he embezzled from a nonprofit company. Thirty percent of the students left after the first year, as did most of the teachers. And despite its name, it has no experience running hands-on vocational programs.
Supporters of Smith, the Bronx’s only high school with state-approved construction trade programs, fear its technical shops will suffer under the charter school’s management and wonder why the city would eliminate an established school only to put an untested school in its place.
“What we offer disadvantaged students in the Bronx is a route to the middle class, to job security through a trade,” said René Cassanova, Smith’s principal. From a vocational standpoint, she said, the charter school “is a fake.”
But city officials defend the move, saying that any risk posed by the new school, known as A.E.C.I., has to be weighed against Smith’s four-year graduation rate of 46 percent and three consecutive C’s on its school report cards.
“I don’t think that it’s any more of a gamble than the 50 percent of students who have already been washed away and not been served by what’s there right now,” said Gregg B. Betheil, the executive director of career and technical education for the city. He said that he expected that the charter school would also attain technical endorsements from the state, as Smith now has, which can shorten the amount of time that graduates must spend in apprenticeships before qualifying for full-fledged trade jobs.
The fight over Smith is the latest controversy surrounding city school closings. Last month, the Panel for Educational Policy, which is controlled by the mayor, voted to close 19 schools for poor performance, a move that led to a lawsuit by the teachers’ union and a complaint by the N.A.A.C.P. that the concerns of the public were not properly taken into account.
In December, city officials proposed shutting Smith as well. But an outcry from community leaders, students and alumni, as well as from employers and industry representatives who hire from Smith, gave the school a partial reprieve. The city agreed to save and improve the automotive program, which teaches about half of Smith’s 1,100 students.
No such stay was extended to Smith’s 22 other technical shops — heating and ventilation, plumbing, electrical installation, carpentry and architectural engineering — and they will go before the panel for a closure vote on Feb. 24.
But the charter school that will take their place has gotten off to a rocky start. In June, its founder and former chairman, Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, was charged in federal court with embezzling $200,000 from SBCC Management Corporation, a nonprofit company that manages low-income apartments in the Bronx.
He and another SBCC official, Margarita Villegas, were accused of spending the money on luxury goods, including plane tickets for Assemblywoman Carmen E. Arroyo, Mr. Arroyo’s grandmother, for whom Mr. Arroyo continues to work as chief of staff, and his aunt, Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo.
Mr. Arroyo and Ms. Villegas have denied the charges, and Mr. Arroyo has resigned from the A.E.C.I. board. Michael Thomas Duffy, the city’s executive director of charter schools, said audits found no theft from the school.
Almost none of the original teachers remain, and 5 of the 15 teachers who were at the school in September have left or have been replaced (two for medical reasons), including one who has filed a grievance claiming he was fired because he supported a unionization drive. The teachers, who work without contracts, pensions, scheduled raises or job security, have overwhelmingly supported forming a union. Their request is headed to arbitration with the State Public Employment Relations Board.
“I love my job, but we need a stronger voice to make sure that we are able to retain good teachers,” said Lynn Harrison, an English teacher. But she also said the school was “starting to hit its stride.”
Because the school is new, teaching 120 children in each of the 9th and 10th grades, Department of Education officials have no academic data about the school or any evaluations except for one visit that officials made last spring. They called the school’s first year difficult and said its vision of success was “not yet firmly established.”
“When you are a new school, you are going to see some transition,” said Eugene Foley, the school’s latest principal, who started in April after the first principal left midyear. Irma Zardoya, the board chairwoman, said that the principal left for medical reasons.
For now, the two South Bronx schools are strikingly different in their approaches. At Smith, students in safety goggles and coveralls build model houses in a towering construction shop, from the frame to the mahogany furniture. Others wire electrical circuits, install plumbing or design structures with computer software.
While some of its students want to go to college, the goal of many is a union apprenticeship. “I’m more of a hands-on kind of person, and I realized getting into a trade or a skill would be better for me,” said Abraham Sepulveda, 17, while taking a break from a plumbing shop.
At A.E.C.I., teachers say they use the building trades as an academic theme, discussing architecture in global history class and asking students to write essays about opportunities in construction. Now in a small, cheery converted day care center on East 140th Street, the school said it planned to offer internships and trade courses as it expanded to include the upper grades, while maintaining its college prep focus.
Some students said they had enrolled at the behest of parents, who liked that they would get more attention at a school with extended hours — 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — an intensive focus on math and English, and class sizes of 25 or fewer.
“It’s a small school; everyone knows each other,” said Darryl Kimble, 15, the sophomore class president.
Mr. Betheil, the city’s technical education chief, said it was too soon to know which of Smith’s trade programs would be revived in the charter school, but “we wouldn’t be moving this school into Smith, with its 32 classrooms and 32 technical shops, if we didn’t plan to use them,” he said. “It is part of what we should be accountable to the community for.”