It makes for a really great chest-beating sound-bite: “we just closed another low performing school!”
It’s all the rage in New York City, at the USDOE, and at many other urban school districts: School Turnaround. And, although the term denotes a number of possible strategies, it almost always connotes the closing of a school. And, you may ask what happens to the building after closure? Very often the building is given over to a charter school. Naturally, this ends up being a factor behind the closing of these schools and the question of who subsequently gets to occupy the school property.
I’ve been reading about Beach Channel High School, as it’s one of 20 schools slated for shuttering by the NYCDOE. As I was reading about how it would be “phased-out,” I recalled the fact that I was there for the phase-in, as I was in the very first class of students when it opened in September of 1973. And it was indeed a phase-in, as when my class entered in the 10th grade, coming from a 7-9 Junior High School, there were no upper classes. The phase-in occurred over three years, until there was a 12th grade class.
In 1971, the excitement over this new high school in The Rockaways was everywhere. It was to be built on Jamaica Bay, offering one of the most glorious views of the Manhattan skyline, looking out across the bird sanctuaries. There would be a crew team, a weather station, a scuba diving training tank, an oceanographic laboratory, a Marine Biology Regents exam (unique to the school), and more.
Here’s a small excerpt from a New York Times article on the planning of BCHS in 1971:
The New York Times. March 7, 1971
SCHOOL IN QUEENS WILL STUDY OCEAN
New Complex Will Be First in City to Offer Course
The water of Jamaica Bay will be an integral part of the learning process at the $20-million Beach Channel High School now under construction in Rockaway Beach, Queens.
The school will be the first in the city system to offer a section devoted to oceanographic instruction and when construction is complete late in 1973, passing motorists can expect to see students dressed in scuba gear diving into the adjacent bay and other students sailing in the marshes in the bay to collect specimens for study.
The courses that will be offered at Beach Channel High School are not designed for only the brightest students.
“There are several practical applications for the knowledge we hope students will gain,” said Maxwell Cohen, developer of the oceanographic plan for the new school.
“For example, we have found that many students in the Rockaways are members of fishing families. One of our hopes is to offer instruction in the modern aspects of scientific fishing, thereby raising the industry’s local economy,” Mr. Cohen said.
Another goal of the oceanographic instruction will be to make students aware of their surroundings. “A student who goes to school in Rockaway must see either the ocean or the bay every day of his life.
Or from a NYT piece shortly after BCHS opened in 1973, an interview with the first BCHS principal, Robert Rappaport:
“We’ve integrated marine studies in all areas of the curriculum, but that doesn’t’ mean we’re a vocational school,” the husky 47-year-old Mr. Rappaport said, “far from it; we’re a comprehensive high school.”
“We’re not replacing languages, literature, the arts, the sciences, we’re enriching them. During the first week we had biology classes collecting plankton from the bay. What we’re trying to do is get kids excited about school.”
And so, math students learning about graphs may end up plotting curves that relate water temperature to salinity; ninth-graders studying a foreign language–as all of them must do, selecting from courses of varying difficulty–will compile word lists from around the sea theme; chemistry and biology students will focus on the composition and life of the sea.”
Granted, it was a time when the graduation rate was a non-issue and the term achievement gap had yet to be coined. A friend tells me the story of asking the then schools chancellor a question about graduation rates. His reply was essentially: “who cares…” BCHS opened its doors right into the biggest layoffs in the history of the school system, when 15,000 teachers were fired in 1975-76.
I remember the school well. There was a terrific faculty of teachers, including a full complement of arts teachers, as well as physical education. It was a truly comprehensive high school, in that it offered a wide range of subjects and activities, including foreign languages, advanced physics, history, social studies, and more.
BCHS was a reflection of The Rockaways, which was mostly a mix of middle class and poor. Was it idyllic? No. BCHS had its share of troubled kids, but all in all, it was a great high school.
As for the arts, knowing what I know today, I would put BCHS at that time up against any high school in the country today, public or private. Band, chorus, music theory, chamber music at the music teachers house on Saturday morning. A powerful visual arts program led by Renee Darvin, who went on to oversee art for the NYCDOE, and who today teaches art teachers at Teachers College. An equally powerful music program led by an accomplished musician: Jack Nowinski, who also happened to be my first trombone teacher.
Oddly enough, my connection to BCHS is stronger today than it’s been in many years. Through Facebook, I’ve reconnected with high school friends. Through my work at CAE, I’ve reconnected with Renee Darvin. A CAE board member, Art Greenberg, was once principal of BCHS. Through advocacy work, I’ve been in touch with other BCHS alums and Norm Scott, a former teacher and education activist who is helping to give voice to the issue of school closings.
I’ve heard what the school chancellor has had to say about schools that have closed or been slated to close. The gist of it is that those fighting for the survival of these schools “aren’t doing right by the kids.”
As a matter of policy, I remain concerned over the loss of the comprehensive high school, as I believe that pound for pound a good comprehensive high school with its broad array of resources and programs is preferable to a small high school. At the very least there should be a reasonable level of choice.
The policy makers preference in the area of comprehensive high school versus small high school has followed patterns where one is favored over the other, then there’s a flip flop. It’s hard to imagine that the zeitgeist will not be reversed, giving way to a push for small schools to be converted to comprehensive high schools once again in the near future. The churn will continue. An illumination of this can be seen in The Gates Foundation decision to step away from funding such work after $2 billion. While Gates walking away from this hasn’t yet led to a movement to build comprehensive high schools, it has certainly taken the steam out of the current rage for small high schools. Follow the money. A school district friend once told me that money is policy.
Back the BCHS. I believe that what has not been made clear in the debate about its closing, is the extent to which the 20 schools on the NYCDOE’s hit list have or have not been supported in efforts to improve. By most accounts, these schools have not been given great support. The feeling from within the schools is that they have improved, without much help from the school district. but in the end, it’s more about politics than sound education decision-making. What is more, it is widely known that many of the non-elite large high schools have been dumping grounds for all the kids that could not get into smaller screened school, essentially loading the deck in favor of the failure.
Click here to read an interesting article on BCHS and this issue, from The New York Times.
BCHS and other schools are asking for another chance, one that would be supported by significant support services. There are many who ask that these schools be given the levels of support provided the new small high schools as they are being planned and opened. Ditto for the new charter schools.
Click here to read last year’s Quality Review for BCHS.
It will make you wonder where the connection is between this review, a
major part of the NYCDOE’s Accountability Initiative, and the closing
of the school.
When I first heard about BCHS being slated for closure, I felt a terrible pain of sadness. To be honest, I was surprised by the feeling. The best way of describing it is a feeling that your past is being erased.
Moreover, as someone who had “sand in his shoes,” meaning that I grew up at the beach, Rockaway Beach, I wondered how it could be possible to close the only two high schools on that isolated Peninsula. We used to call it the “insular Peninsula.” And, it is indeed that. There’s not much going on in The Rockaways, and you have to feel for the kids who would now have to travel quite far to find a high school nearby, as in 45 minutes to an hour each way. You see, the only other high school in Rockaway, Far Rockaway High School, stopped accepting new students in 2008 as part of its planned closure.
For elementary or middle school, travel is certainly an issue, but no where near the issue it is at the high school level. With many poor kids in The Rockaways, who must work after school, the travel time will force some harsh decisions regarding school versus work. I hate to think that the kids will drop out of high school because they have to work and cannot afford the travel time required to the nearest high school.
Today, we are witnessing the biggest public fight yet over the slated closing of any schools, including a planned protest at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s home in Manhattan. That may be a first. With a school board controlled by the Mayor, it’s hard to imagine that the protests will have much impact. Still, you never know.
So, what do I hope for? I hope the fight builds and that another shot is given most if not all of these schools. And, the shot must be a real one, fully supported by the types of resources that go into the creation of new small high schools and charter schools. This would be of particular importance for Beach Channel High School, for the sake of the kids on that isolated, insular Peninsula, where the issues these kids face are most likely misunderstood by the school district.