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Judged a Failure by the Data, a School Succeeds Where It Counts

Gotham Schools provided the back story on the horrendous data approach to operating schools that Mayor Bloomberg follows slavishly.

Ohanian Comment: As Michael Powell helps us see, the very good news is that this school exists. The very bad news is that Mayor Bloomberg continues to exert such power. When I was teaching at an alternative high school, kids with so many problems they were cast off from the regular high school, I complained to my dad about one of the students: "Nineteen years old and only a sophomore, he'll never graduate."

Dad reminded me that it took him seven years to get through high school. Growing up poor in Phoenix, he'd go to school for a year and then drop out for a year, getting jobs to help support the family. He reminded me that the teachers didn't give up on him just because he was overage. "They always welcomed me back," he said.

I was humbled by that reminder that students have complicated lives outside the schoolhouse doors. After that, every time I'd get down on a student, I'd think of my dad taking 7 years to get the diploma. After his junior year, the owner of a cemetery where he had a job digging graves offered him a job as manager. "I could have worn a suit," Dad told us. "But I told him I had to go back and finish high school." He never lost that belief in education, serving on local school boards in our community for more than twenty-five years.

Yes, the very good news is that Bushwick Community High School exists. The very bad news is that Mayor Bloomberg continues to exert such power over "nonlinear kids with nonlinear lives" who are lucky enough to have found a nonlinear faculty that knows how to work with them, a faculty Bloomberg insists must be fired.

Reader Comment: It is upsetting to me that this school is going to be closed with the principal and half of the staff members probably being laid off. This school not only provides a last chance for those to obtain a High School diploma, but it also enforces that the students here are highly valued and can positive members to society. I can honestly say that this is what they did for me and many others. I graduated from this school in '93 with honors. If it were not for teachers like Ellie and Tabari (who I believe are still there)Larry and Irwin, who was also the dean and taught psychology, it was he that inspired me to pursue in the field . I am now working on achieving an LCSW. If it were not for these endearing teachers who offer hope to students to those who are deficient, not only academically, but sometimes emotionally and socially. they would still be lost. For some the streets is all they know, and here this school offers the students hope, guides them to make the right choices as well as teach them accountability to become positive members to their community. . This school takes its time to invest in the students self esteem so that they reach their maximum potential. For some, potential is something they thought never even thought they had. To this day I refer clients to the school because I am confident in their services. To me it costs tax payers a lot less to educate a person than it does to keep them behind bars. Nothing beats EDUCATION! This is what they teach!

Reader Comment: "These are nonlinear kids with nonlinear lives." Most of us on the planet fit into that overcrowded quote, even more so as NCLB, Race To The Top, "reform" insanity, high stakes testing and over crowded schools ignore our youth. Thousands and thousands of children are being left behind and thousands more - including parents - have lost patience and trust in educators.

The smart eccentric deeply committed teachers found in these "failing" schools are at the heart of what's so amazing about our schools and our city; it's teachers at schools like Bushwick that change lives. The demolition of "failing" schools not only abandons the neediest, it guarantees the very failure the Mayor, Governor and President think they're overcoming.
,br> Reader Comment: This is a school whose teachers are affecting students' lives in ways that can't be measured by "value added models." This is not unique to this school- it is being replicated throughout the New York City. However, as Mr. Powell indicates, the good work being done here doesn't jibe with Mayor Bloomberg's agenda. This "reformer" who has appointed three unqualified Chancellors is not about helping children. What he is about is using dis-credited data to vilify teachers, closing public schools and turning over education to charter schools being run by friends of his (i.e. Eva Moskowitz and Geoffrey Canada), creating a transient teaching force made up of newbies that can easily be manipulated and will never collect a sustained salary, pension or benefits and destroying the UFT, which he views as an impediment to his plutocracy. His policies have never been about the kids- they have always been about the money and the control. It will take years to undo the damage he has inflicted upon our public school system- meanwhile, students are being hurt, and many lost, in the process.

Reader Comment:Has Mayor Bloomberg forgotten it's people he's educating, not widgets?

By Michael Powell

Aniah McAllister was a lost girl of New York, one of tens of thousands of children edging toward an adulthood drained of hope.

At 18, she possessed just 17 high school credits; she knew the streets and little more. She wandered, almost on a whim, into Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn, a last-chance school for last-chance kids.

Two years later?

"I'm 20 years old, I have 46 credits, and I want to go to college."

Ms. McAllister shakes her head, as if amazed to have just claimed that desire as her own. "This school made realize," she says, "that I am much better than I thought I was."

That's a pretty fair bottom line for any school, although in the up-is-down world of public education in New York, it might just be an epitaph for this small marvel of a high school. Known as a transfer high school, Bushwick Community admits only those teenagers who have failed elsewhere. Most students enter at age 17 or 18, and most have fewer than 10 credits.

You can muck around quite a bit trying to find someone who has walked the school's corridors, talked to its students and faculty, and come away unmoved. Most sound like Kathleen M. Cashin, a member of the State Board of Regents and a former superintendent. "They care for the neediest with love and rigor," she said. "They are a tribute to public education."

Yet Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose insistence that he has presided over an educational miracle recognizes few bounds of contrary fact, has proposed laying off the principal and half the teachers before it can reopen for the next school year. City officials complain that a majority of students fail to graduate in six years.

This bill of indictment appears math-challenged.

If students enter at 17 or 18, with less than a year's worth of credits, the chances seem strikingly good that the students will not graduate within six years of freshman year. (The State Education Department takes the view that the metrics, rather than the high school, are most likely broken.)

The city's Education Department has adopted a resolutely cheery tone.

"This really empowers them to take ownership of this school," a department spokesman said. "What kind of change can they imagine?"

Public education across the nation has sunk deep into a bog of metrics. We presume to measure teaching and achievement as a chemist does a proper mixture of chemicals. To this conceit, you can add the draconian demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which offers millions of dollars in help for poor urban schools only if city officials adhere to the same unyielding metrics.

This is a particular problem for a transfer high school, whose faculty takes children bruised by years of neglect. Bushwick Community is run, in part, by its faculty members, who offer the usual collection of the smart, the eccentric and the deeply committed found in most schools that work.

To sit with a dozen of the students at a community center not far from the high school was to watch as one girl nursed a baby and another spoke of living with her child in a shelter. Two had been tossed out of their family homes. Another lived with her grandmother on Coney Island -- she commutes one and a half hours each way to this high school in Bushwick.

These are nonlinear kids with nonlinear lives.

There are no fairy tales in public education. These teachers are their own harshest critics. Yet the Education Department's report card compares this school with other transfer schools, and gives it a 95 percent grade in improving student attendance, 90 percent for passing the English Regents exam and 100 percent for the math Regents.

All of which is fine, though not nearly as moving as listening to these teenagers talk of lives adrift until they washed ashore here.

Justin Soto, short and muscular with a goatee, raises his hand. "I had not passed a class since junior high school," he says, as tears roll down his cheeks and a girl rubs his neck. "I'm 21, but I'm not a man yet. This school has given me a life."

Ms. McAllister raises her hand. A year ago, she asked her teacher if she was smart enough to graduate. He spent an hour talking to her. Next year, she will attend Medgar Evers College. She, too, is crying.

"Failure was all I knew," she says.

What, I ask, would you like to be?

"A teacher, oddly," she says. "I mean, it's inspiring when you know what you were and see what you are now."

E-mail: powellm@nytimes.com

Twitter: @powellnyt

— Michael Powell
New York Times





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