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'Goodbye, Columbus': Shutting Down Big Schools Doesn't Solve Problems

Last week, a Bronx public high school from whose hallowed halls graduated the likes of actress Anne Bancroft, New York State senator Jeffrey Klein, David Berkowitz (better known as "Son of Sam"), and according to Wikipedia, a lot of other celebrities who didn't actually go there--that is, Christopher Columbus High School--was finally closed down after 75 years. "Big Columbus," as the original school became known during the era in which all large public schools were slowly split into several small schools co-existing on the same campus, was also where I began my teaching career over a decade ago.

During my first year teaching at Columbus, it was named an "Impact" school, one of the initial 10 high schools in the area that presented "higher than average criminal incidents" on campus; as a result, a full-time school police unit, metal detectors, and scanners were assigned to the school. In truth, much of Columbus' issues were attributable to extreme over-crowding; the school was at 147% capacity, so students were on a split schedule, wherein the freshmen and sophomores did not begin their classes until noon and did not finish until nearly 6pm. There simply wasn't enough room to house all the kids in the building at the same time. With such an unusual school schedule (leaving tons of unstructured, unsupervised time for the kids to get into trouble before school even began, and leave before the school day even finished), lack of consistent supervision in the building in early and late hours, incredible crowding in general, it would have been unsurprising to anyone with two brain-cells to rub together that all types of disciplinary issues would be on the rise.

Nevertheless, the high discipline rates and low graduation rates ultimately paved the way for Columbus to be shrunk down in favor of new small schools, each with a new "vision," moving into the building. When that shrink happened, the teacher pool at Columbus was cut, too. As the least senior teacher in my department, I was on the chopping block in spring 2005; fortunately, one of the new, growing small schools in the building scooped me up as the teacher for their first-ever junior class. I've remained there ever since.

Columbus, unable to redeem itself after the disastrous 2003-2005 school years, eventually became the de-facto "dumping ground" for all types of late enrolling students--kids missing credits, transferring due to disciplinary issues at other schools, or newly arriving in the United States. Understandably, these students came with a lot of difficulties that hindered their credit accumulation and passing of state tests, thus making the graduation rates further sink. The trend of placing students like these in "failing" schools isn't unique to Columbus; a study by the Annenberg Group showed that in fact, overwhelmingly, these late-enrollers are placed almost exclusively in failing schools, perpetuating the intractably low graduation rates, and thus giving Department of Education higher-ups seemingly air-tight reasons to close down these schools for low performance.

And in fact, this is what happened at Christopher Columbus High School, which closed its doors at the end of June. Several small schools exist on what is now the Columbus Campus, jockeying for resources and bickering over classroom space. But "Big Columbus" is no more.

I was lucky enough to teach a few of the graduates of Columbus' last class in my AP English Literature class, and though they were aggravated about the state of their school (which, as it was being shut down, had limited access to all types of resources and what they saw as a bad reputation), they were as diligent, witty, and creative as any of the AP students in the small school in whose AP class they had enrolled. Contrary to popular mythology, there aren't "bad schools" or even "dropout factories"--just big schools with limited resources and space, and an over-abundance of really high-needs students along with some truly excellent scholars. Closing down "Big Columbus" didn't solve any problems; all the kids who would have gone there are now either in the small schools on the Columbus campus, some of which will meet similar fates to their eponymous predecessor, or in other schools in the neighborhood with the same issues. But the trend of carving up big schools did create a lot more highly-paid administrators in the DOE ranks, along with a lack of institutional memory at any of the brand new high schools that now exist all over the Bronx.

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