BROOKLYN – Brawls, drugs, gun exchanges, such was a typical day at Erasmus High School on Church and Bedford avenues and for many other of Flatbush schools’ recent history.
The 1997 school rating system, based on students’ progress and performance, graded Erasmus “very poor”, prompting Department of Education officials to divide the then 3,000-student school into five small schools, sharing the same building. Officials said the change was for the better, and they are seeing signs of improvement. One small school now boasts a graduation rate of 92 percent.
Despite these gains, educators say “small schools” are not the solution to turning schools around permanently. Investing in the disadvantaged children and the neighborhood will.
“Having five to six principals is all politics; the money could have been invested in the children,” said Pierre- Richard Merisier, Erasmus High School alum now the assistant program chair at the high school for Service and Learning on the campus.
Erasmus, located in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood of Caribbean immigrants, tried breaking up once before. In 1990, after the building reached its 2,500 capacity, administrators converted it into three schools with 700 children each.
This second division, launched in June 2007, broke Erasmus into the specialty high schools of Hospitality and Tourism, Service and Learning, College Board, Youth and Community Development, and Science Technology and Research.
The model is a centerpiece of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, to show his efforts at overhauling the public education system. The idea for them is that a more close-knit environment will serve students more effectively than the large and often chaotic high schools they replaced.
“Focus needs to be on the students,” DOE spokeswoman Melody Meyer said.
“Fewer numbers allow teachers to better address students’ specific needs,” she said
Last fall, as Brooklyn’s 287,500 public middle and high school students returned to classes, some of them entered 19 newly-opened small schools across the borough’s icy neighborhoods. Among those high schools being phased out are the chronically failing Tilden in East Flatbush, which is on the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools, Lafayette, in Benson Hurst, and South Shore, in Canarsie.
Eight out of the 47 small schools graduated more than 90 percent of their students in four years, in 2008, according to the DOE. The graduation average for all small schools, in 2007, was 73 percent – a significant edge over the citywide 60 percent of students that graduated in 2006.
Meriser said the results are great, but students need more. The grading system also disproportionately affects the way the schools are viewed, he said.
“You are still working with a population that might not even have a computer or Internet at home,” Merisier said. “Students with a higher level will not come here because of the building’s reputation. We are receiving students from the Caribbean from level 1, but they still have to take the same level exam as everyone.”
The schools grading system, which emphasizes test scores, also does not reflect the school’s effectiveness, other educators say. It does not account for students’ backgrounds and previous education experiences.
“The world is coming to New York,” said Natalie Pardo, an English teacher at the Academy of Urban Planning, a small school in the formerly troubled Bushwick high school. “It is difficult to base a school’s evaluation on academic performance only and conclude it is bad,” she said.
“Every population has a different challenge,” Pardo said. “You need to ensure that the population’s special needs are being served to achieve success.”
That poor-performing schools are linked to neighborhoods with low income residents must be taken into consideration when measuring student progress.
“We should not weigh on neighborhood to evaluate a school’s success,” said Jean Mirvil, principal at the mostly black and Hispanic PS 73, in the Bronx. “It is a combination but the leadership has greater control over what the neighborhood brings.”
Certain neighborhoods, like Midwood, have received privileges that boosted student performance. At Midwood High School, for example, each classroom has a smart board, an interactive technology tool that allows students and teachers real-time interaction with educational web sites. Erasmus’s Science School, meanwhile, has only one modern computer lab to accommodate all students per period.
Critics say that essential educational programs are routinely slashed from school budgets, and DOE no longer offers GED or computer classes for parents coming from the Caribbean that once helped them work with their children.
Some consequences of the small schools also raise particularly uncomfortable questions for Bloomberg’s Administration. The vast majority of the borough’s high school students still attend large schools, and many of those are far above capacity. A big school that once housed 1,000 9th-graders is being replaced by four schools with no more than 100 students each in that grade, sending hundreds of students spilling into the remaining big schools.
“What matters for us is when children graduate to be able to go to College and get a good job,” Meyer said.
This article was written as part of an education reporting fellowship granted by New York Community Media Alliance