With nearly 1.2 million children, the New York City public school system is the largest in the nation. Until recently, the Big Apple had one of the worst per capita high school dropout rates in the country, especially in the city's low-income neighborhoods. VOA's Adam Phillips has an end-of-the-school year look at how one school is turning around.
The day is early but the energy is high in the immense Depression-era building that once housed the Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. But this month, the last of Evander's seniors will graduate and the school will pass into history.
That's a good thing, says Steven Chernigoff, principal of The Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts, one of six specialized schools of about 400 students each that have now taken their place in the building. "Evander Childs High School was one of the worst schools in the city," says Chernigoff. "It was really just a disaster." In addition to its reputation for violence, Evander was known for its overcrowding; average class size approached 40 students. In contrast, the new schools replacing it average only 25 pupils per classroom.
Each of these smaller schools has a different focus. In addition to the school for writing and communications arts, there are schools for aerospace science, health careers, contemporary arts, a so-called "lab school", and an academy devoted to computers and technology. Its principal, Bruce Abramowitz, says that, unlike Evander, which was built on an old "factory" model, all these schools share a dedication to understanding the individual student. "[That means] everything the student comes to the table with, including family problems they may have and life at home - and closing those gaps that kids fall through." When asked whether this strategy is working, Abramowitz replies unhesitatingly in the affirmative.
The statistics bear him out. Six years ago, only three out of ten Evander students graduated. Today, the graduation rate at Abramowitz's school and the other five academies is between 70 and 80 percent.
According to Principal Steven Chernigoff, to get those results, it was not enough to simply divide the old mega-school by six. Rather, entirely new schools had to be created, each with its own mission and staff. In other words, he says, "the culture" had to be changed. "So you start a new school from scratch with just a group of ninth graders. And all the adults know all of the kids by name, all of the parents, and all of the families, [and there is] strong academic and social and emotional support."
Chernigoff adds that in smaller schools like his, "every child knows there is an adult who knows my name, there is a support structure that is there for me and will not let me fail and will keep supporting me for four years."
That formula seems to satisfy 17-year-old Marquis, who was dissatisfied and failing in the old Evander. "Before I started here, I was a very bad student. I didn't do work. I didn't even go to school." When asked what made the difference for him, Marquis praised the teachers. "I connected with them, and the work was easy and it was fun."
Mindy, a 14-year-old student at the school, is proud of a writing competition she has won, and eager to share her newest work, "Ode to Midnight," with a reporter.
… Ode to midnight so dark and so silent.
Those beautiful white eyes,
Millions in the count.
They open at the close of day and
They close at the opening.
Ode to you, when the midnight moon is
The heart of the sky…"
Literacy and effective communication skills are crucial elements of a good education. But students must also prepare for life after graduation. That's why each of these academies offers internships in real-life work settings in Manhattan, a short subway ride away. All students must also pass statewide academic examinations in order to graduate.
Principal Chernigoff is confident that his students are being effectively educated in these schools. "Kids deserve to have great schools and a great education that will prepare them for success in the future… and they have not had that for a very long time."
Graduation exercises at the Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts and the other five academies that have replaced the old Evander Childs High School are taking place this month.