The white cockatoo perched on a student’s shoulder during last weekend’s Citywide High School Fair was just one squawking example of the lengths schools go to set themselves apart from eighth-graders’ 500 other high school options.
But for a small group of schools, those that the Department of Education tried but failed to close, winning the affections of eighth-graders could mean the difference between life and death.
The schools were slated for an aggressive overhaul known as “turnaround” until an arbitrator ruled this summer that the process violated the city’s contract with the teachers union. Turnaround would have caused the schools to close and reopen with different names, teachers, and programs. The high school of another school, Manhattan’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, was never at risk, but its reputation suffered when the city moved to shutter its middle school.
All of the schools are under pressure to demonstrate demand by December, when high school applications are due and when the Department of Education announces its annual school closure proposals. The department frequently cites low demand as a major reason for moving to close schools.
Many of the ex-turnaround schools already have lower-than-usual enrollment, after last year’s tumult, which started in the middle of the high school admissions progress. Many also now have new principals, programs, and organizational problems. Still, the staff and students who spoke to GothamSchools on the second day of the fair said they are putting their best foot forward.
Long Island City High School
During a brief lull in the fair on Sunday, juniors Arissa Hilario and Wendy Li took a break from waving families over to the Long Island City High School booth to admire Winter, an umbrella cockatoo from George Washington Carver High School making the rounds in the area for Queens schools.
They said their booth had been attracting prospective students but that some were confused about whether Long Island City, which was on the turnaround list, still exists.
“Some people do ask about it, but we told them how we fought for our school,” Li said, referring to a raucous closure hearing last spring in which students literally leapt to their school’s defense.
“People think that the school is bad because of the graduate rate, but we include students with disabilities” and many recent immigrants, she said.
Both said the new principal, Vivian Selenikas, has brought more structure and organization to the school by hiring more guidance counselors who follow students through their classes in several themed academies.
“She’s trying her best and really cares about the students,” Li said.
Wadleigh Secondary School
Guidance counselor Diane Ramirez made her case for Wadleigh Secondary School from the second floor of Brooklyn Technical High School, the site of the fair. Wadleigh’s middle school landed on the chopping block last year, but it was removed from the list at the last minute after high-profile supporters, including many Harlem political leaders, rallied to defend it.
“We’ve been open for a very long time, so the programs are the same. Visual arts, vocal music, drama,” Ramirez told the half-dozen families who paused at her booth shortly after noon on Sunday. She then described the performing arts school’s auditioning process, which asks students to sing, perform monologues or submit art portfolios.
The end of Wadleigh’s middle school program would have freed classroom space in the building, which also houses Frederick Douglass Academy II and a new charter school, Success Academy Harlem West.
Instead, Ramirez said space is tight on Wadleigh’s two floors, and the presence of the new charter school has induced some tensions.
“The children are noticing the difference between the charter school and our school,” she said. “The charter school is better looking than we are. It has better bathrooms.”
Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School
Alfred E. Smith escaped closure two years ago, when the city decided to shrink it to its most popular programs instead of shut it outright. But it landed on the chopping block again this year after the city chose it for turnaround. After an arbitrator’s ruling ended the turnaround plans, Smith and the 23 other turnaround schools had just weeks to prepare for the new school year.
Joseph Marcus, an automotive collision repair teacher entering his 28th year at Smith, said the year has been off to a promising start despite the recent changes, which include a new principal, Evan Schwartz.
“We’re still good because we have a positive outlook for the future,” he said. “When you get that new group of kids in September, looking to you for knowledge, that just builds [your mood] back up.”
“Smith is for anybody who likes the automotive trade. And anybody who likes working with their hands,” Marcus said, describing his pitch to families. “The skills they learn here are easily transferable to other trades. We provide an education that goes beyond automotive.”
He showed me a photo of the same car hood, emblazoned with Smith’s logo, that was on display during Smith’s turnaround hearing last spring. Students painted it themselves, Marcus explained.
“We do this type of stuff on a regular basis. It’s not hard to learn, but you have to believe you can do it,” he said.
Marcus said Smith’s dwindling enrollment and the reputation that two years on the city’s hit list have brought remain challenges.
This past year, “we had a few more students than we did last year — last year was a bad year, but it’s still not where we’d like it to be,” he said.
When a mother and her son stopped by, he made his case for the careers in automotive repair and technology that Smith’s CTE program would offer.
Smith teaches “how to be self-sufficient, make some money, get out of your parents’ house,” Marcus told the Bronx eighth-grader, who nodded along. “All good things.”
The mother wanted to know which team sports were offered. “All of them,” Marcus said.
August Martin High School
No families were checking out August Martin’s booth as the fair entered its last hour, but teacher Christopher Callahan stood by, ready to tout the positive changes that have arrived since the city installed a new principal as part of its later-abandoned turnaround plans.
At the top of the list, Callahan said, each student has been assigned an adviser who will track them until graduation.
“This gives parents and students a direct link to the high school,” he said. “They’re able to help them stay on track with graduation requirements and plan for their post-secondary education.”
When Gillian Smith was appointed principal of August Martin in an abrupt, mid-year leadership change, she said she would focus on improving the quality of teachers at the school by offering more professional development and more time for curriculum planning.
But Callahan said the turnaround left him and other teachers with less time to plan for the new year than they would have liked, because none knew if they would be returning to August Martin until mid-July. Yet recent changes to the academic programs, including the creation of themed academies, have met a positive reception, he said.
“There’s a stronger school spirit and community atmosphere here,” he said.