What is the problem with the large public high schools in the Bronx? Maybe the issue is that the New York City Department of Education wants them to fail.
Last week, news broke detailing a credit scheme at a school where we have both worked as teachers, the Jane Addams High School for Academics and Careers in the South Bronx. School staff alleged that Jane Addams' administration engaged in what one teacher referred to as “double dipping,” the practice of giving students credits for multiple courses for taking a single class.
Claiming ignorance, the city has done nothing to dispel suggestions that the school’s principal, Sharron Smalls, orchestrated the scheme in isolation. Blatantly absent from the discussion is any acknowledgement by the Education Department of its own culpability.
The Education Department deserves credit as the Svengali of many of the administrative decisions made at Jane Addams, or at the very least as a complicit bystander.
At the core, Jane Addams is both the lifeblood and a casualty of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s uncompromising dream of a public school system dominated by small academies.
Although it had been one of the Bronx’s most successful high schools in the beginning of the decade, by 2009 Jane Addams had been pegged as one of New York City’s Persistently Lowest Achieving schools. It was also one of the last remaining large public high schools in the Bronx during an era when most others were being dismantled.
At the end of the 2009-10 school year, in a last-ditch effort to improve the school, the Education Department mandated that Jane Addams separate into four small learning academies characterized by its career departments and student populations: law and medicine, business and beauty, ninth graders, and undercredited upperclassmen. This cleavage sacrificed the welfare of the school for the vision of the central office.
The restructuring of Jane Addams blindly thrust the school into a situation wherein academic departments were dissolved and many staff members were let go. The remaining guidance counselors were assigned to academies while their caseloads increased.
At the same time, they lost the ability to create students’ schedules — tasks that were taken over by administrators. This policy kept teachers and guidance counselors in the dark, unaware of how students received credit and for what classes.
Simultaneously, Jane Addams stopped offering precalculus, calculus, physics, chemistry, most foreign language classes and all honors and Advanced Placement courses, with no explanation. It was then that parents started transferring students to other schools.
As a result of this reorganization, some students wound up with only four classes a day, others with two of the same classes; undercredited students were removed from classes during the regular school day and placed into an after-school program held in computer labs; and few were being prepared to do college-level work.
And yet, Jane Addams’s performance had not improved. Thus, the Education Department provided the school with the funds to hire outside consultants with little experience in urban environments, the largest group of which was based out of Georgia.
Sent in to revamp the school’s curriculum and culture, most, if not all, of their recommendations were contextually irrelevant, culturally insensitive or never implemented.
As teachers, we were often required to leave our classes unattended to partake in weekly meetings with curriculum coaches, and suffered a lowering of morale as we were compelled to participate in what had become a charade to appease some invisible power.
At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, the city promised to implement one of four aggressive actions if the school had not improved by June. However, when June arrived, it decided to postpone the decision, allowing Jane Addams to persist in its current form.
This nonaction raises important questions: Why did the Education Department let Jane Addams continue on its failing path, and how can it get away with claiming ignorance about the current credit scandal when its interventions provided it with boundless access to the school’s data?
The answer: The Education Department cannot survive without Jane Addams as it is.
Jane Addams is a battered, but reliable, stalwart, supporting the success of its neighboring schools by acting as a haven for the many students who do not fit into the school models that now dominate the Bronx.
It is a de facto zoned high school, although city policy dictates that its enrollment should be based on student choice. It is a warehouse for many of the toughest students in the city whose needs the small schools refuse to meet, and in its current condition, Jane Addams cannot.
This is not to say that Jane Addams is not filled with bright, inspiring and ambitious students, but rather to claim that it was not given the necessary supports to allow any of them to reach their potential. And with the school’s location in the poorest Congressional district in the nation, those affected had no say in the matter.
In the end, Jane Addams is failing not because of some malevolent wish from the Education Department and not only because of inept school leadership. Jane Addams is the product of systemic issues in Education Department leadership and oversight, and department-instituted “reform” that continues to lack focus on neighborhood-school development.
And yet, the biggest question of this South Bronx tale is this: Did the Jane Addams community not matter until it made the cover of The Daily News?