Saturday, January 8, 2011

Brandeis High School: Diary of a School Designed for Closure

"Do we see on the horizon the attempt to bring “charters” back to their origins in the segregation academies of the south?"

This essay was written by an insider at Brandeis HS using an alias. It is a classic case of a school targeted for failure based on political and ideological grounds. It appears the principal was placed in the school as a "closer", as we've described on other situations (Bergtraum, Lafayette, Lehman) - see Is Murray Bergtraum Principal a "Closer?"

"Ana" gives us a look at the schools that are replacing Brandeis, two of them doomed themselves and few clearly there as stalking horses - occcupying space until Eva Moskowitz can lay claim the massive building as her own as she builds a white middle class charter school, which has always been an intention of the charter school movement over the long term.

What Is Happening at the Brandeis Educational Complex?
by Ana Kiona

In early 2008 the Department of Education (DOE), announced the closing of Brandeis High School (BHS), a large public high school located on West 84th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues on the Upper West Side (UWS) of Manhattan. They cited poor performance and attendance, a low graduation rate, and school violence while feigningf concern for poor students of color and their academic futures. However, three years later, the story is more complex and intricately linked to the drive to privatize public education and hand over valuable Manhattan real estate to the “friends” and ideological supporters of the mayor.

When the closure was announced, blame for the school’s failure was placed on the students who didn’t want to learn, their parents who didn’t care and the bad teachers, particularly the tenured ones. The New York Times (NYT) heaped praise on the then principal (a Klein favorite) now retired from the DOE and receiving a large salary from some other educational endeavor.

Historically BHS educated the children of the poor and working class families of the Upper West Side and Upper Manhattan. Its alumni include the current President of the Dominican Republic, several current and former BHS teachers and other prominent Latino and African American Professionals. It is a well kept structure with excellent facilities and surrounding grounds. However, as the once liberal and diverse UWS became increasingly gentrified, whiter and politically conservative, poor students of color were no longer welcome in the neighborhood. Many local merchants allow students inside their stores only to check their electronic devices for a fee.

Meanwhile BHS continued to welcome English Language Learners (ELLs), new immigrant students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs), special education students, those re-entering the DOE from Rikers Island, Juvenile Justice Facilities, Residential Treatment Programs as well as those returning from expulsions, suspensions and safety transfers. Despite the overwhelming social, emotional and educational needs of the students, the Principal drove out many experienced educators and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) who provided tutoring, mentoring, youth development, employment opportunities and other social supports for struggling students. Instead students’ misbehavior was increasingly criminalized. Coming late to class, cutting school, verbal confrontations and fighting all led to suspensions and possibly criminal charges and potential arrests. Bathrooms were often locked and students couldn’t even bring in their own food and drink, despite the poor quality of cafeteria food. Officers of the local NYPD Precint patrolled the school in droves. They were commanded by their superiors “to not be social workers and keep up the numbers of summons and arrests or else be transferred to foot patrol outside”. At the close of the school day, School Safety Officers with the assistance of the NYPD are outside to quickly move students out of the area, reminiscent of “pass laws”.

When the actual announcement to close BHS came, one third of the students were ELLs and there was a significant number of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), including students in self-contained classrooms. These very students were blamed for the low graduation rate and “lack of progress of the cohort”. DOE officials never spoke of the successes, numerous prestigious internships, a thriving music and art program, a full component of male and female sports and many scholarship winners. There were few advocates for the school. The Principal never publicly defended her students or staff who struggled against great odds. The UFT Chapter Chair made little effort to rally his members and seek union-wide support. Unfortunately many committed staff had already been driven out of the school and others were fearful of retaliation by the Principal and a few of her vindictive Assistant Principals. Nevertheless, there was a small cadre of dedicated teachers, staff and students who rallied with others to express outrage and protest the closing. With the lack of a strong Parents Association and no Parent Coordinator, many parents were swayed by a now disgraced High School Superintendent who promised them “better schools” for their current students as well as their younger children. As the majority of students and their parents were neither voters nor local residents, they received absolutely no support from the politicians. In fact, many of these politicians were meeting clandestinely with local residents and DOE officials to “remake BHS”.

The phase out of BHS greatly impacted both students and staff. The broad brush of “being in a failed school” resulted in demoralization. Some abandoned the ship as they witnessed cuts in staff, classes, programs and activities. Those teachers who remain fear ATRdom as the new schools have been reluctant to hire them as they too have branded them as “failed teachers”.

What exists now?

BHS is in year two of a three year phase out. There are four small schools co-existing in the building. Two of then have 9th and 10th graders and are floundering under inexperienced leadership, insufficient experienced staff and the lack of a comprehensive plan to deal with the large numbers of students with high educational and social needs. Their attendance is poor, violent incidents are high, and students academic progress is uneven. One of the schools has replaced BHS as being forced to accept whatever students come their way regardless of their ability to deal with them. They have a higher than usual percentage of special education students, many formerly in self-contained classrooms but their IEPs were changed as the closure of large comprehensive high schools has left no available self contained classroom space for them. Others are either new immigrants with no English language skills or students coming out of facilities and requiring intense counseling and services to facilitate their adjustment.

The third school is a transfer school which has contracted out some of their positions. As they have been able to interview and ostensibly “select” their students, they have a greater degree of control. However, their attendance has been poor, with numerous dropouts and overall slow progress.

The fourth school which is the long heralded academically challenging high school with a high percentage of middle income, academically successful white students. Their student body has been “selected” and not “assigned”. The school leadership is experienced and the effort, planning and resources that went into its development are unlike the other schools. Their parents are organized, involved and strong advocates for the school. Not surprisingly their recruitment has been affected by the fact that some UWS residents are reluctant to send their teens there while poor students of color are the majority in the building, metal detectors are a way of life and School Security and the NYPD dominate the entrance.

While local intelligence always believed that this fourth school and perhaps other similar schools would “inherit” the building, it now appears that another plan may be underway. On November 18, 2010 it was announced that BHS would most probably be the site for Eva Muscovite’s Upper Westside Success Academy. The mere mention of two initial sites, PS 145 and PS 165 engendered forceful protests from parents, teachers and community leaders. However, there is nobody to protest at the BHS site. The students, parents and teachers of the disappearing BHS have already been silenced. The leadership of the first three schools has always known that they were probably in their current location on borrowed time. In addition, each of these young inexperienced “school leaders” is fighting for their jobs and is unwilling to “rock the boat”. The neighborhood activists and local merchants would love nothing more than for them all to go. Only the fourth school has local political support as well as active parents who can advocate for themselves and their children.

With the recent building of luxury housing there is a desire among some affluent Westsiders to make the “public schools system work for them”. Currently there is a shortage of prize elementary school seats in the affluent portion of the district. Enter Eva who has advertised that she will offer a private school quality education for free. While she states that priority will be given to ELLs, siblings of students in her other Success Academies and students citywide slated to enter failing schools, her informational and recruitment sessions have been held in English in the most richest and whitest sector of the UWS, at the Jewish Community Center, the Westside YMCA and in the homes’ of wealthy Westside residents who support Charter Schools. Her Bus Shelter Ads and literature are only in English and try to create the impression that Charter Schools aren’t just for poor children of color.

Inside BHS sources now say that the Brandeis Educational Complex will contain a K-8 Success Academy, palatable to the local community and perhaps will also include the “well prepared students” of the McCourt High School.

Are we surprised that these plans have little to do with education or concern for the “types of students who formerly attended BHS”? Rather it is a calculated move to steamroll ahead in the drive to privatize education but with a new twist, bringing the children of the gentrified, predominantly white middle class into the fold. Do we see on the horizon the attempt to bring “charters” back to their origins in the segregation academies of the south? Where do the local politicians, union leaders and other education allies stand on this most probable scenario.
Check out Norms Notes for a variety of articles of interest: And make sure to check out the side panel on right for news bits.

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