Here's What Happens When Mini-Schools Run Amok
Ohanian Comment: Here's what happens when mini-school mania takes over--with no thought of poor, working class kids who want to learn technical skills. Note what is shoving out automotive technology. Why is there no respect for skilled labor?
FROM the low, flat plain on the Bronx side of the Harlem River, John F. Kennedy High School rises as abruptly as a canyon wall. Its eight stories contain more than 4,200 students, well beyond official capacity, and the academic record could be charitably described as middling. Kennedy, then, is exactly the sort of massive school viewed with disfavor by Mayor Bloomberg and his Department of Education.
On the ground floor of Kennedy, tucked between the football field and the weight room, a teacher named Manny Martinez runs an automotive technology program. In the combined garage and classroom, amid tool cabinets and hydraulic lifts and service bays, about 170 pupils a year study a '97 Grand Am and '96 Cavalier the way medical school students study cadavers, as a means of learning anatomy and organ function.
For many of Mr. Martinez's charges, auto shop offers the one place and time where they experience the utility of an education. The vocational program keeps them coming to school. It has led a number of alumni into skilled jobs with dealerships and service centers, jobs that pay decent wages and benefits, jobs that boast a career ladder.
At a time in New York public education when specialized minischools are being uncritically embraced, one could plausibly say that the Kennedy auto tech program provides many of the same attributes: a focused curriculum, a motivated student body, the application of classroom knowledge in the real world. Which makes it nothing short of astonishing that within two weeks, if plans hold, the whole program will be shut down. The auto shop will be gutted, the students and teachers left directionless, several hundred thousand dollars' worth of equipment hauled away.
All this will happen as a ripple effect from the influx of minischools to Kennedy. The building already houses two of them, the Bronx Theater High School and the Marble Hill High School for International Studies. A third, the Bronx High School of Law and Finance, will open in the fall. As those schools occupy what had been Kennedy's classroom space, Kennedy is cannibalizing the auto shop to build several classrooms and a graphic arts shop for its own displaced pupils.
Something feels unfair about laying this choice solely at the feet of Kennedy's principal, Anthony Rotunno. Rather, it looks like the predictable outcome of the headlong rush toward small schools by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Even if the city manages to open 200 by 2007, as promised, and even if all succeed gloriously, which certainly remains to be seen, a vast majority of New York's high school students will be attending conventional schools like Kennedy.
No sensible person questions that smaller schools can offer an intimacy and accessibility so often lacking in the bulging buildings that typify what critics have dubbed the "factory model" of secondary education. And no sensible person would uphold Kennedy, whose passing rates on the English and math Regents exams lag well behind city averages, as an exemplar of academic achievement. But would anybody, in effect, choose to pit three mini-schools against a popular existing program in a neighborhood school that is already overcrowded?
One of that program's alumni is Juan Vicente. He took eight different auto tech classes during his years at Kennedy, often staying in the shop until dinnertime to work on engines with his teachers. After graduation in 2000, he went on to an advanced trade school in New Jersey and earned an internship at Mercedes-Benz Manhattan. The dealership hired him full time, and now he makes $14 an hour as a parts clerk, plus monthly bonuses as high as $450. He gets health insurance, vacation, and tuition aid for Monroe College, where he is studying business administration with the goal of starting his own repair shop.
"I wouldn't be here without it," Mr. Vicente, who is 22, said of the Kennedy auto tech program. "I wouldn't be going to college. I don't know, actually, if I would be alive. It was a reason to stay in school. I was more interested in those two hours in the shop than the rest of my day."
While Mr. Vicente recalls his experience sentimentally, his bosses at the Mercedes dealership look at it pragmatically. Automotive technology has grown markedly more sophisticated in the past decade, the grease monkey's overalls being supplanted by the laptop computer. Yet at the same time the industry's appetite for skilled labor has increased, vocational education often seems relegated to stepchild status in New York and elsewhere, the afterthought in a system geared toward college admissions.
"If we lose part of the chain, if we lose the vocational high school end," said Dan Edwards, the service director at Mercedes-Benz Manhattan, "then you rip the core out of the system."
Neither Mr. Martinez nor his students have accepted their impending obsolescence. Instead of quietly going the way of the Studebaker and the Edsel, they have organized. One senior, Marina Diakakis, wrote a petition demanding that the auto shop remain open, and has collected 1,100 signatures from students and community residents. Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, mentioned the Kennedy dispute in testimony last month before the City Council.
None of these efforts, it must be said, appear to have made any difference. Michele Cahill, senior counselor for education policy in the Department of Education, maintained that the auto tech program "does not have a record of success," citing attendance and passing rates, both in the 60 percent range. "The idea of small schools," she said, is not to harm larger ones but "to create schools where students are going to be more successful."
If indeed the Kennedy program is so weak as to be expendable, then one would expect its students to be directed to a comparable or even better auto tech program elsewhere. Yet those students say they have not been given any such information, and, in fact, another Bronx high school, Christopher Columbus, closed its auto shop as a minischool was being implanted.
Meanwhile, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Miss Diakakis walked home from Kennedy, pointing out the local sights. These included several gas stations with service operations as well as repair shops.
"Just take a look and tell me what you see," she said, as if addressing the principal or the chancellor more than the classmates beside her. "There's so many cars here. God forbid anybody should learn about them."
Samuel G. Freedman
New York Times
As Cars Become More Intricate, Automotive Tech Class Is Junked