Sunday, April 05, 2009

Adlai Stevenson High: The Pride of the Bronx?

The saga of a closing school. The sequences from low attendance, multiple principals, violence, SURR classification, and finally closure all seem so familiar.

Adlai Stevenson High: The Pride of the Bronx?

Tommy Montoya returned to Adlai E. Stevenson High School last September to find its multi-million dollar automotive shop being carted off tool by tool. All summer, he had looked forward to learning car electronics in his automotive class. “My teacher Mr. Rosenson told us he would show us,” said Montoya. “They get paid more than mechanics.”

The first floor garage’s blue Ford, its silver Pontiac and its massive car lifts were hauled away in September 2006 to make room for Millennium Arts Academy. Millennium is one of five small schools that are replacing Stevenson at its old address at Pugsley and Lafayette in the East Bronx.

“Mr. Rosenson told us if everything worked out good, it would still be there,” said Montoya, once an advanced student in the 75-trainee automotive program that produced many Bronx mechanics. He had hoped to become one of them.

“I guess it didn’t work out good,” said the 19-year-old junior.

The automotive shop was Montoya’s favorite classroom, and the reason that he chose to go to Stevenson, yet many school officials believe vocational classes like this one had to go. "Vocational programs were among the worst performing," said Eric Nadelstern, chief executive officer of the city’s empowerment schools.

The automotive program is just one part of Stevenson that has disappeared. The school has stopped accepting ninth graders, and mini schools began moving into the building in 2002. The high school is being phased out by 2009 as part of a massive New York City restructuring that replaces large schools with smaller ones.

Stevenson was an inevitable target. Its checkered resume has included stints on several “worst of” lists—worst graduation rates, worst attendance, most dangerous.

Eric Nadelstern was deputy superintendent for small Bronx high schools from 2001 to 2003, and was in charge of breaking down all the large Bronx comprehensive secondary schools except two—Herbert Lehman and DeWitt Clinton, his alma mater.

"Schools like Stevenson warehoused the youngsters who were hardest to educate," said Nadelstern. “Not surprisingly, they got bad results. The fault lies less in the individuals than in the structure of that kind of school."

Stevenson has been considered a failing school for years, and the latest Department of Education numbers available, from 2005, bear this out. Its four-year graduation rate of 39 percent was one of the lowest in the city. An average of 71 percent of students attended class daily, compared to 82 percent citywide.

In 2004-2005, Stevenson Campus, which includes the five small schools, reported 140 disciplinary incidents and was called one of the "dirty dozen" most dangerous school sites in the city. The number of major crimes—eight—was lower than it was in similarly-sized schools, but the total number of incidents was higher.

But teachers and students disagree with Nadelstern’s assessment. They argue that the school is more than the sum of its paltry statistics. For them, Stevenson’s problems are less about form (large size) than content (the school’s population, which has shifted significantly).

They point to the school’s successes, several of which do not show up in the Department of Education’s annual school report cards. Stevenson’s many committed, experienced teachers are renowned for mentoring their younger colleagues, as well as transforming mediocre students into college material. In the past two years, Stevenson graduates have won almost $2 million in college scholarships, and several students have gone on to the Ivy League.

The teachers believe the problem does not lie in the school’s structure, which hasn’t changed much since its heyday in the 70s and 80s, when it was considered a good neighborhood school that produced its share of doctors and lawyers.

According to Kevin Duffy, the school’s assistant principal of attendance, Stevenson’s serious attendance problems started when it was no longer a zoned school, in the early ‘90s. Whereas 90 percent of students once came from the local 10473 zip code, now just 50 percent do. Today, more than half of Stevenson’s long-term absentees live far from the school—some in homeless shelters as far away as Brooklyn.

In addition to long distances that kept students from the school, staff members argue that Stevenson was sabotaged by the Board of Education, which fed it a disproportionate number of students who were likely to fail, and then blamed the school when they did.

Incoming full-time special-education students nearly doubled between 2000 and 2004, rising from 6.2 percent to 11.8 percent. Those over-age for their grade went from 34 percent to 54 percent over the same period, as Stevenson was being considered for closure. Not surprisingly, its test scores did not improve.

For his part, Nadelstern will shed no tears for Stevenson. “Nothing is lost when schools like Stevenson close,” said Nadelstern. “They are unhealthy places, not just for kids but for adults.”

But former and current staff and students argue that many will lose when the school shuts down, including vocational students like Tommy Montoya. Higher education is the principal goal of small schools like the one that displaced the workshop where he used to take car engines apart and put them back together.

He loved wearing his work boots and blue mechanic’s overalls to his 8 AM class, learning the trade he hoped would yield him a job. He gets nostalgic about working on a science teacher’s Oldsmobile after it blew a head gasket in the fall of 2005. Since the automotive workshop was shut down, his attendance to his 8 AM class—math-- has been spotty, his grades have suffered and his interest has waned. “I used to pass my classes,” said Montoya. “If Mr. Rosenson would’ve been here, I would’ve passed.”

He has no plans for college.

“The Pride of the Bronx”

Though he chose Stevenson over two prominent Bronx schools, DeWitt Clinton and Lehman, until 15 years ago a kid like Montoya would have gone there automatically. He lives in the Soundview section of the Bronx, a residential area with row houses, housing projects and a few strip malls. Stevenson is his neighborhood school.

The hulking four-story brown brick building opened for business in 1970. Bernie Keller, a Stevenson English teacher who grew up in the nearby Monroe housing projects, remembers the neighborhood in those years as much more diverse, both economically and racially, including a mix of blacks, Hispanics, and whites.

At that time, the school was best known for its athletics. Fraying shot put pennants from the early 70s still hang in the cavernous gymnasium.

Lewis Sands, a retired social studies teacher who came to Stevenson in 1981, was attracted by two other teachers, who told him, “It has a ghetto population, but it really works.”

He came from Thomas Jefferson, a high school in Brooklyn’s East New York, and was surprised by Stevenson’s assemblies. “The school was very well run. There were plays, presentations, choirs,” he said. “We never had that at Jefferson.”

In 1984, Adlai E. Stevenson received a national award from the Ford Foundation for significantly improving over the previous decade.

Still, the school was crowded. There were more than 4,000 students enrolled in a building that, according to a New York State evaluation, was meant to hold 2,500. Teachers described walking the halls with their arms pressed tightly to their bodies between periods because the school was so packed.

Bernie Keller, who has turned down positions at Stuyvesant High School three times to stay at Stevenson, remembers that period fondly. “Back in the ‘80s, kids were coming to class,” he said, noting that these days, he’s lucky if he gets 15 out of a class of 25. “On open school night, 40 or 50 parents would show up. My brother [who was also a teacher there] and I used to compete.”

One principal, Michael Weber, who was at the school from 1986 to 1991, wore a Stevenson tie that said “The Pride of the Bronx,” and had the school’s letterhead printed with the same words. “Weber was a hokey guy, and he really loved the school,” said Sands.

Weber brought in one of the school’s flagship programs, the Academy of Finance, which offers special courses and internships to strong students.

Over the years, Stevenson has had the renowned John Marshall Law program , which mentors aspiring lawyers, a scuba diving program, a jewelry-making workshop, a culinary arts course that sent students to the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, a college-bound program for academically challenged kids, an acclaimed gospel choir and a hospital work internship program among many other academic offerings.

Teachers remember wearing purple ties—the school’s color—and giving out penguin toys—the school’s mascot—when students did well in classes during Weber’s tenure. It was a time of vibrant school spirit.

But Weber clashed with a pair of media-savvy Stevenson teachers who have since moved on. They instigated several negative articles about the school, and hounded Weber until he left. That was when the parade of principals, and the school’s decline, began. “Other schools that were having trouble could attract new kids with new programs and new money,” said Sands. “We were always on the merry-go-round of principals.”

According to media reports from the early ‘90s, violence was becoming a problem at the school. In 1991, Stevenson’s administration proposed installing metal detectors, but the Parents’ Association, which was active at the time, vetoed the idea.

When a student attacked a social studies teacher in his classroom in May of 1992 teachers pushed—very publicly—for more security. That teacher, David Gurowsky, is still at Stevenson, and is one of the leaders of the campaign to keep it open.

The teachers’ concerns and the attendant bad press for the school coincided with a significant shift in the New York school system. In 1992, then-Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez gave parents the option of sending their children to schools outside their neighborhoods.

Troubled zoned schools, like Stevenson, lost some of their best potential students. Stevenson became the school of last resort, and more and more students who were performing below grade level and didn’t get accepted anywhere else were being enrolled there. In the words of several faculty members, the school was “uncapped”: constantly above capacity, constantly forced to take more students.

“DeWitt Clinton and Lehman could shoo away an undesirable student, but we couldn’t,” said Tom Decruze, a popular social studies teacher who arrived in 1994.

In fact, two of the small schools that are currently located in Stevenson were originally at Lehman. Lehman’s powerful principal, Robert Leder, who has been there since 1979, managed to oust both.

In his first years, Decruze taught ninth-grade repeaters. “Some of them were 17, or 18, or 19, and still trying to pass,” he said. “My goal was to get them to pass the damn Regents test.”

Stevenson teachers—and a walk through the halls—tell of teen lives complicated by pregnancy, abuse, homelessness, gangs and poverty.

According to Decruze, attendance was his students’ biggest problem. “Some kids have very fragmented lives,” he said. “A lot of them get dumped on to take care of their siblings, and that affects their attendance. The main reason we had so many repeaters was because if you don’t go to school, you don’t pass.”

In the 1990s, the school’s reputation only worsened. Stevenson reported 405 security incidents in 1996, earning it the title “most dangerous school in the city” for the third year in a row. But in interviews, students and teachers insisted that the school was safe—it was just overcrowded. In 1995, with 4,400 students, Stevenson was operating at 76 percent above its capacity.

In 1995, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Stevenson was one of 34 schools that was part of the first major installation of walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines. At the time, students complained of delays during the morning security process, and of being late for their first period class. They still do.

The year the school got additional security it faced Board of Education budget cuts. In the Spring ’95 issue of the school newspaper, students worried that the respected performing arts program would lose funding. Student Tara Southwell wrote, “As a result of these new cuts, dropout rates will increase, graduation rates will decrease, and the level of learning for children will decrease as well.”

In the end, Stevenson didn’t lose its performing arts program, but it did lose teachers, school aides and supplies. A 1996 report released by City Comptroller Alan Hevesi analyzed cuts to city schools and found that several science teachers at Stevenson were showing documentaries in place of doing hands-on lab work, which was deemed too expensive.

In 2000, Stevenson was added to New York State’s list of the 105 worst-performing schools, called the Schools Under Registration Review list, partly because of its abysmal absentee record; 27 percent of students were missing in action, daily.

The school was alerted that it could be closed if it didn’t improve.

“You just get sent there”

In September of 2001, shortly after the school received that dubious honor, Sheyenne Brown had her first day at Stevenson. She had not gotten into the performing arts schools she had applied to—LaGuardia and Talent Unlimited— and was sent to Stevenson, her zoned school. “Stevenson is not a school people apply to,” she said. “You just get sent there.”

Brown was nervous. “I had heard such horrible things about Stevenson,” she said. “When nothing violent happened the first day I was there, I was surprised.”

During the four years that she was there, Brown felt safe for the most part, though the school was too crowded for her liking. After graduating, Brown went on to Middlebury College on a scholarship that Stevenson social studies teacher Todd Davis had pushed her to apply for.

In 2005 and 2006, Stevenson students were awarded almost $2 million in scholarship money, according to Nancy Vargas, the school’s college counselor. “For me, Stevenson was a launching pad,” said Brown. “The teachers got me where I am now. They really care.” Brown’s grades at Middlebury are in the same A and B range that they were at Stevenson.

But while Brown was at Stevenson, the school went from a large high school with several quality programs to a shrinking, doomed school. Her favorite teacher, Todd Davis, was forced to leave when she did.

Bronx Guild, a high school affiliated with Outward Bound, was the first small school to arrive in the building. In September 2002, it moved into the fourth floor of Stevenson—the social studies floor.

Though Stevenson teachers were not overjoyed by the arrival, at the time none of them felt particularly threatened by it. When Bronx Guild arrived, it had just 76 students.

The next year, two more small schools opened in the same building: the High School for Community Research and Learning, and the Gateway Academy for Environmental Research and Technology.

Gateway’s opening was a blow to Stevenson. The Gateway program was an advanced math and science curriculum for honors students at Stevenson. Its administrator, Clifford Siegel, had broken off to create his own school.

Siegel took Stevenson’s incoming Gateway class with him when he opened his own school, according to Tom Decruze, who administered admissions for Stevenson’s top programs. The departure of 25 of its best students didn’t help Stevenson’s test scores. Resentment against the small schools increased.

Stevenson wasn’t yet slated for closure, and students and staff began noticing inequalities between their facilities and the new schools’.

“I would look into rooms that used to be ours, and they had fewer students per class. They had new furniture and air conditioning,” said Todd Davis, who taught social studies at Stevenson from 2002 to 2005. “In May and June it was very hard to teach because it was so hot. I taught in a room with a huge hole in the wall because it used to be the cooking room.”

Stevenson was fighting to get off the state’s Schools Under Registration Review list. The automotive program and other popular vocational programs were de-emphasized in favor of double periods of math and English, so that students would do better on tests. Stevenson managed to improve its record enough to come off of the SURR list in 2003.

But in 2004, Mayor Bloomberg created the Impact Schools initiative, which identified the most dangerous schools in the city and flooded them with police officers. As a result of its high number of security incidents, Stevenson was one of the initial “dirty dozen.”

The same year, the two schools that Lehman had rejected arrived at Stevenson, bringing the total number of small schools in the building to five.

Each school has its own specialty, from architecture, to art, to community research. There are two schools per floor in the building, so schools attempt to differentiate themselves. The Pablo Neruda Academy for Architecture and World Studies has Grecian columns framing its office door.

These schools’ ninth-grade demographics are different from Stevenson’s in notable ways: they have few special-education and non-English speaking students, their pupils have consistently higher test scores than Stevenson’s; and ninth-graders have much better attendance rates in the year before they arrive.

A comparison of several small and large schools, including Stevenson and Bronx Guild, by the United Federation of Teacher’s Leo Casey found that, “the small school took in higher percentages of students meeting standards and ready to do high school work, and lower percentages of students at risk for dropping out.”

It wasn’t until 2005 that Stevenson received the official word that it was being closed, after Tom Decruze attempted to select new freshmen for the school and discovered that there were none in the computer queue.

Ironically, according to the school’s security director, the safety records of both Stevenson and the campus as a whole have improved significantly to the point that the campus may soon be removed from the dreaded Impact list.

According to Stevenson staff, the improvement happened partly because the building is much less overcrowded, and partly because Stevenson stopped taking in ninth-graders last year. There are fewer of the most volatile, fight-prone students.

Another factor is leadership. Stevenson may have finally found the leader it lacked for so many years: Principal Gerry Martori, a trim, friendly man who has held teaching and assistant principal positions since arriving at the school as a 23-year-old special ed teacher in 1980.

He plays basketball with students every Friday afternoon, and his office door is always open. Martori, who took the job in 2003, is respected by teachers and students alike, even gang members whom he has suspended repeatedly.

“Gerry loves Stevenson. He grew up here. He is a principal from the school,” said Keller. “He didn’t read it in some guidebook.”

But Martori got the job too late. Stevenson today is a shadow of what it once was. Teachers place bets on how few parents will show up on parent-teacher nights. There are fewer Advanced Placement courses than ever. Room 421, the treasured law room, with its jury box and gavel, has been renovated into classrooms for Pablo Neruda Academy. Room 285, the wood shop, is shrinking.

But the school’s Fruits of the Spirit Gospel Ensemble can still sing, and its concert on April 27 was still rousing. Several seniors in purple Stevenson T-shirts with the digits 07 printed on the back jumped up and joined in the choir’s choreography, step by step.

During the intermission, the students lamented their school’s impending closure and several told stories about how they had transformed from failing students to honor students because of Stevenson teachers.

“I came here because of my low grades, but now I’m going to college” said Denisse Cortes, 17, a senior who will attend Hunter College in the fall. “I passed my English Regents because of Mr. Keller. He really put it into my head that there’s no excuses.” She added that she had used Keller’s infamous rule number 11: study!

As the school closes, teachers—particularly those who were mentored by other Stevenson staff—have begun mourning in advance. Todd Davis is now at Bronx Science, one of the city’s top schools. He insists that he learned much of what has made him a superstar from graying Stevenson veterans like Bernie Keller and Lewis Sands.

But though Davis misses Stevenson, and would have gladly stayed there, its demise hasn’t affected him nearly as much as it has Tommy Montoya.

Like his college-bound senior friends, Montoya was at the gospel concert last April wearing a Stevenson shirt, but his future doesn’t look as certain. The school’s one college counselor will leave at the end of this year. She will not be able to guide him.

The automotive program motivated him—if he didn’t keep up with his other classes, he wasn’t allowed to work on the cars. Now he has no such motivation, and his grades are faltering.

When he was in the program, he was certain that he would become a mechanic. “Mr. Rosenson helped people find automotive schools, he told us how much going to one helped him,” said Montoya. “He told me about UTI [Universal Technical Institute]. I would’ve picked the program for Audis.”

For Montoya, the Stevenson program represented his future. He has wanted to be a mechanic like his uncle since the seventh grade, but these days he is less than sure about the Audi Academy.

“Everything is just gone. I wanted to come back here, but there ain’t no Stevenson to come back to. Now I’m like, ‘Stevenson is closing,” he said, “I just want to get out and get a job.”

See picture on site below:


Reni said...

Good post..

Anonymous said...

Factual and sad commentary regarding Stevenson and many other academic high schools that have been dissected by the DOE. When will the public become outraged?

Anonymous said...

very nice thank you for the information

Anonymous said...

As a former Adlai E. Stevenson graduate '82 w/honors - I'm appalled that the BOE finds it so easy to close a school, instead of helping the school change it's structure, learning/teaching environment, whether socially, culturally and academically. Not only does the community suffer, but so do our young people. BOE is setting up these young people up for failure! Why wait until it's too late to do anything - the problem did not occur overnight, but apparently it's all dependent upon the community in which the school is located - surburbs/Urban areas)! Stop talking foolishness about wanting to help every child receive a good education when, in fact, the BOE, Bloomberg and all those talking out of the left side of their mouth, DON'T GIVE A DAMN! Although they want us to believe them - hmmm...honest politicians - I'll get back to you on that!

A bunch of pathetic politicians! NYC citizens should be outraged!!!!

Unknown said...

So, I went to Stevenson, and didn't pass. I remember my first day of class I was high, stoned and drunk. I ran into a friend on my way to school and he was doing it so I joined in. I guess it carried over from the summer. Anyway, when I got to school it was overwhelming. I did not know who to associate myself with. When you see cool kids going to school after the bell and that being the norm you tend to follow. Well I'm not surprised that they closed the school, that place was way too overcrowded. I use to think that NYC public school were the worst. I am certain that public school in general are pretty bad nation wide. I know now what it takes to get an education, having had to move out of the city I gained a new perspective. Currently, I hold a Liberal Arts Degree, an Associate Science Nursing Degree, A Bachelor of Nursing Degree, and A Master's Science Nursing Education Degree but I am still hampered by my experiences of experience of not graduated Stevenson High School. There are many factors that go into a person not doing well during high school and as mentioned in the above article the students at Stevenson had a host of them.