Infuriated by the union’s success in barring the closure of 19 public schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked reporters last month why any parent would send their children to a “failing school.”
At Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, one of the 19 schools, there are as many answers to that question as there are freshmen.
Half of Columbus' 300 ninth-graders selected Columbus as part of the high school admissions process. The other half were sent there by the city, sometimes after failing to find slots at other schools. Columbus’s principal, Lisa Fuentes, said a parent came to her last week after nine other Bronx high schools had turned her daughter away. Though she was old enough to be a high school senior, the student had only half the credits she’d need to graduate, making it impossible for her to get a diploma by the year’s end. Now she’s a Columbus student.
Recently, I met four freshmen, each with a different story for how she or he came to Columbus. Three of them chose the school. That means that as eighth-graders, Leslie Anne Alcantara, Gregory Woodson and Edwin Santiago listed Columbus among their 12 preferred schools in the high school admissions process.
Later, when the city didn’t put them in Columbus because officials assumed the school would close, these students had to fill out more paperwork in order to enroll. All of them knew going into the school year that the city would likely try a second time to close the school. But few of them understood the city’s phase-out process or that they’d be the last class to graduate from Columbus.
Columbus was Alcantara’s first choice. “My mom wanted me to come here,” she said. “My cousins went here. One is a senior here. And then the two others graduated and are in college.”
She had reservations at first. There were rumors among friends that Columbus had problems with violence. She also knew that the school might close, and wasn’t sure what that meant for her chances of getting into another high school.
“It’s good,” Alcantara, 14, said. ”In the beginning, I was scared to come here because I heard things about it. But it’s better than I thought.”
When Woodson put Columbus on his list, he was going against his mother’s wishes. She wanted him to attend Harry Truman High School, another large high school in the Bronx, but one that is not walking distance from Woodson’s doorstop.
“I applied here ’cause it was close and it has a culinary arts class in it,” he said. “My mom said that their [Truman's] culinary institute is much better, but I said that I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to travel.”
Edwin Santiago, 14, also applied to Columbus. Though he was enrolled at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, which runs through the ninth-grade, he wanted to find a new school.
“I applied because my old school wasn’t prepared and didn’t have really good teachers,” he said. “And so I decided to come here because I have a family tradition [of going to Columbus].”
One freshman, who did not want her name mentioned, was placed in Columbus by the Department of Education. After eight years in New York City’s public schools, she’d gone to Jamaica for a year, and when she returned the city had to find her a spot. Though the city fought against having to place students in schools like Columbus this year, the student said officials gave her a choice between Theodore Roosevelt High School and Columbus. They recommended Columbus, but she said she wasn’t sure why.
Though she’s happy at Columbus, she said she’d likely try to transfer out if the city succeeds in phasing-out the school. “I don’t want to be in a closing school, why would I want to do that?” she said, noting that she’d like to fight the school’s closure, but didn’t think the city would listen to students.
“I like the teachers, but I’ll get used to others,” she said.
The other three students said they would stay and graduate from Columbus, regardless of the school’s future.
“I would stay, just to finish,” Alcantara said.
Woodson said he would stick around, too.
“My mom, she told me so much: ‘Columbus is this and they have a lot of problems there and they’re going to close down,’ ” he said. “And I’m like, I’m giving it a chance. It’s better than I thought it would be.”