Columbus High School and Jefferson High School are among 19 schools to be closed for not making the grade in the nation's largest school district. The closures announced last month are part of an aggressive city plan to shut down low-performing schools in favor of smaller, more specialized ones.
Students and the teachers' union have fought back against the closures, the most ever in an academic year, filing a lawsuit that says the targeted schools were overloaded with high-needs students and set up to fail.
For 16-year-old Ferona Bryan, Columbus' closure will shut a 71-year-old school with a legacy: Her mother and two aunts attended and still feel connected to it.
"We won't have anything to visit,'' she lamented. "It will be as though this school never existed.''
ince gaining control of New York City's sprawling public school system in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has moved decisively to close low-performing schools, many of them large neighborhood schools like Columbus and Jefferson in Brooklyn. They have been supplanted by smaller schools with specialized focuses and names like the High School for Civil Rights and the World Academy for Total Community Health.
Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein say they are closing high schools with low graduation rates and elementary schools where few pupils can read or do math at grade level.
The city Department of Education says Columbus graduated just 40 percent of its students on time last year and received a D on its departmental report card.
Staff members say those numbers don't tell the story.
"The problem was not our outcome,'' said Christine Rowland, who works at Columbus' professional development office. "The problem was the intake. ... We have a lot of children in foster care. We have children who are homeless. Their social needs sometimes get in the way of their education.''
Twenty-six percent of Columbus' students are classified as special education, and 18 percent are not fluent in English. "Last year we took in 22 students who were released from incarceration,''
Bloomberg has said he hopes to shut down 10 percent, or 150, of city schools over the next four years, an aggressive stance toward bad schools that echoes Obama administration priorities. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said 5,000 "chronically low-achieving'' schools need to be closed or turned around nationwide.
But critics say the doomed schools weren't given as many resources as new charter or specialized schools.
"If you're going to close a school you should make sure that you were doing right by that school,'' United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said when announcing the lawsuit earlier this month.
The school closures were announced at a raucous, hourslong meeting of a school oversight panel that ended at 3:30 a.m. Three thousand people attended the Jan. 26 meeting, some using sock puppets and signs to show their displeasure. The panel voted 9-4 to close the schools.
The targeted schools will not close suddenly but will be phased out over several years. Existing students can stay until they graduate, but no new class will be admitted in the fall.
City Councilman Lewis Fidler has three high schools in his Brooklyn district that were given the ax in 2006 or 2007 and are in protracted death throes.
"Every rat who can get off the sinking ship is doing so, and who's left?'' Fidler asked. "You can't possibly be maintaining the same level of services.''
The schools are typically replaced with several smaller schools in the same building. Some of the new schools are charter schools with no UFT contracts, drawing complaints of union-busting.
The city says its new schools -- both charters and noncharters -- are succeeding. The new high schools have an average graduation rate of 75 percent, 15 percent higher than in the city as a whole.
And the failing schools are not more disadvantaged than others on average, city officials said.
"There are schools that have similar populations that are doing the job of educating our students,'' said deputy mayor Dennis Walcott.
Critics say the new schools skim off the better students.
"Those new schools enrolled kids who are less at-risk academically,'' said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University. He said the school system "hasn't been very transparent'' about where the weakest students from the closed schools end up.
The teachers' union and its allies believe they have a better case against the closings this year than in the past. A law that established mayoral control over the schools was tweaked by the state Legislature when it was renewed last summer. Before closing a school, the city is now required to prepare an analysis of the closing's impact on its surrounding community.
The UFT lawsuit charges that school officials submitted boilerplate impact statements for each school in "a pretense of compliance.''
Countered Walcott: "We've met the letter of the law. We identified 19 schools that needed to be phased out because of poor performance. ... It's unacceptable that our students are not getting an education at these schools.''