Friday, February 16, 2007

H.S. Slated for Phase-Out
Battle To Keep Tilden Open


Parents, Teachers and students at Tilden High School in Brooklyn's East Flatbush neighborhood are struggling to keep their 2,300-student school open even as the city has already begun to implement plans to replace it with two small schools.

The Chief-Leader/Pat Arnow
CALLING FOR PATIENCE: Unlike Mets manager Willie Randolph, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is not a Tilden graduate, but she donned a school sweatshirt while urging the Department of Education to give school officials additional time to engineer a turnaround.
The massive high school suffers from below-average graduation and attendance rates, but advocates say that a new Principal and a sense of enthusiasm among the staff and students have begun to turn the school around. They want a chance to restructure the school while maintaining its cohesion, but the city has already granted permission for two small schools to set up shop.
'Don't Know Our Needs'
"How dare you close our school without our ideas, our input," said Michael George, the girls' basketball coach, who graduated from Tilden in 1990 and then earned a B.A. from Brandeis University, at a community meeting Feb. 6. "You do not live in this community, you are not part of this community, you don't know what our students need."
The Chief-Leader/Pat Arnow

TRYING TO PAINT A TRUER PICTURE: Tilden High School Art Teacher Joseph Cook (center), flanked by the 'art squad' of his students who made the banner, says the school has begun transforming itself and that Department of Education statistics showing continued educational failure are misleading.
The Teachers and Principal Diane Varano have drafted a plan to maintain Tilden by dividing the student body into separate academies run by Assistant Principals or lead Teachers under Ms. Varano's direction.
"The bottom line is that the school is not serving the students," said Melody Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. "We're going to bring in schools to the Tilden campus we think have a better chance of doing that."
The two schools are It Takes a Village Academy and the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, each of which will have about 560 students when they are at full capacity. The schools are two of 20 small secondary schools being opened by the city in September.
Think Smaller is Better
The DOE says It Takes A Village will have a "focus on cultural diversity" and that both schools "have been met with eagerness at recent high school information fairs."
Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein have made new school creation a central part of their education reform plan, phasing out low-performing large schools and replacing them with small ones. Dubbed the New Schools Initiative, the city has created 184 new secondary schools, six elementary schools, and 36 charter schools since 2002.
But parents and Teachers at Tilden say that small schools do not cure all ills, and they fear that the new schools will not address the social and cultural needs of the student population.
About 91 percent of the students at Tilden are black, about 7 percent are Latino, 11 percent are in English language-learning classes and 13 percent are special-education students. The majority of students entering the school test below grade level in English and math.
About 23 percent are recent immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean. Currently there is a bilingual Creole-language program at Tilden, one of only a handful in the city. But the new schools, like all start-up small schools in the city, will be exempt for the first two years from accepting special-education students who required their own classrooms, and won't have to hire bilingual Teachers.
'Statistics Miss Mark'
"We have a community here, and a united staff that is motivated," said Joseph Cook, who has taught art at the school for 10 years and is also the United Federation of Teachers union chapter chair. "Most of the statistics don't reflect what's been happening here." Mr. Cook noted that the DOE's own consultants rated the school as "proficient" in their Quality Review Report performed in September 2006.
DOE says it consulted with the community for six weeks in December and January after it decided to phase out the school and before it decided what to put in its place. But community members say they were not part of the decision-making process.
"They just sent us a letter and told us it was happening," said Deborah Casimir, the president of Tilden's Parent-Teacher Association. "I'm satisfied with the progress right now in the school, and I don't know what will happen with these new schools."
Some parents said they are not convinced about the superiority of small schools. PTA vice president Ertha Feneloa has a son in 11th grade at Tilden and another son in 7th grade at the new small School of Human Rights. "I really don't see much of a difference between this large school and the small one," she said.
'Give Us a Chance'
Mostly, those involved said they believe that Tilden is on the right track. Teachers say that the very effort of fighting for the school shows the kind of investment that the DOE says is needed for school improvement.
"What they are saying is we have a plan, give us a chance," said Randi Weingarten, UFT president. "If they can turn this school around, imagine the hope and the message that sends to the community, to the parents, and to the students."
The city says it has yet to see the plan. "We are aware that the Principal of Tilden High School was considering restructuring ideas," said Jemina Bernard, Chief Operating Officer of DOE's Office of New Schools. "However, I know of no steps taken to submit a proposal."
The DOE points to what it says is a record of poor academic performance at the school. About 43 percent of Tilden seniors graduated last year, below the citywide average of 58 percent. Ms. Meyer also said that statistics show that Tilden is not a top choice for most students in the city and that the majority of students who enter Tilden performing below grade level do not catch up. "The school does not have a track record proving its ability to educate students who need it most," she said.
The DOE also points to a recent study of 14 small city schools that started four years ago that shows that the schools are performing better than other city schools. The study, performed by the nonprofit Wested with funding from the Gates Foundation - which has also provided funding for the city's New Schools Initiative - found that the schools' combined average graduation rate was 79 percent, with 53 percent gaining acceptance into a four-year college.
Limited Application?
But some education advocates say the study should not be taken as proof that small schools are always the best alternative. The report itself notes that, "Due to the study's necessary use of incomplete and sometimes preliminary data, this report is descriptive in nature and not intended for making comparisons beyond the 14 schools considered in the study."
David Bloomfield is the president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, the parent advisory group, and an early advocate of the small schools movement when it started in the 1970s. But he says that the Mayor's reliance on small schools to fix what ails the city school system may be misguided.
"When you scale up, you create new problems," he said. "You essentially start an assembly-line process, which was emphatically what the small schools were meant to avoid."
Not only have the new schools been privy to a flood of private funding, said Mr. Bloomfield and other education advocates, but the schools' special education and English language-learner exemption make comparisons with the rest of the school system difficult.
'A Top-Down Mentality'
And although the DOE says it is relying on the "entrepreneurial spirit" of school leaders, Mr. Bloomfield says, "There seems to be at DOE a top-down mentality that continues to turn a deaf ear to community attitudes and opinions."
Next school year, Tilden will stop accepting students and the two small schools will each admit a 9th grade class. The small schools will add a grade each year and as they grow, the remaining Tilden students will graduate.
According to the UFT contract, at least 50 percent of the existing Tilden Teachers must be interviewed for jobs at the new school, but without the guarantee of being hired. Teachers say they are worried about where they will go next and if they will be able to find a job in the district. There are currently five Teachers at Tilden who are "excessed," meaning there were not enough students to create a full class in their subject area, so they must act as substitutes until a job becomes available. A clause in the union contract that used to give senior Teachers the right to be hired at any school with an opening was removed in 2005.
School staff also say they are concerned about the impact of Tilden's closing on other schools in the area, since it will accept fewer students and will have some admission restrictions.
"I am worried it will leave some of the students behind," said Nancy Miller, who teaches art at Tilden. "We take all kinds of students, some who don't speak English, whether they are low-functioning academically or high-functioning. What's going to happen to all the kids in this neighborhood?"

No comments: