Plea for Bushwick High: Give Last-Chance School Another Chance

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I’m an old fashioned guy, so on my first visit to Bushwick Community High School a few years ago, I flinched when the students called their principal and teachers by their first names.

Now that I’ve been back a few times, I don’t flinch anymore. These students look very young, but fate stole their youth long ago. There are no children here.

“We were messed up in other schools,” said Ramale, a handsome 20-year-old, who looks 16. “I was on a crazy path; I dropped out in ninth grade.”

Bushwick High, officially known as a transfer school and informally as a “last chance” school, enrolls only students who have dropped out of traditional schools. Most of them find their way here at 17 or 18, with as few as seven credits under their belts and plenty of scars on their psyches from life on the street.

Given that its mission is to educate and transform these fragile young people into productive community members, the school is a success in its category.

It came as a blow to them when, last January, mayor decided to close the place. He was measuring Bushwick as if it had conventional four-year student cohorts. They were trying to fit a conventional template over the school.

As an advocate against the wholesale shuttering of schools, I am immune to shock. But I’m not immune to outrage, and when I recently read Michael Powell’s New York Times column on the impending closing, I headed straight back to Bushwick.

Closing Bushwick means throwing out the principal, Tira Randall, and half the teachers, changing its name and then reopening and lowering the enrollment age. That would shut out 17- and 18-year-olds and send them the message that they are beyond hope.

Not one student I encountered on my recent visit could figure out how losing their principal, teachers and cherished school name was going to help them.

“The teachers and especially Tira let us touch our creativity,” said Ramale, who intends to study child development in college and work with kids in Brooklyn. “There’s love in this school. Where will that love go when she’s gone?”

“Many of these students never had an adult role model till they came here,” Ms. Randall said, in her office, which is full of African drums and a poster of a very young Barack Obama.

When she arrived in 2004, it was a community outreach center that prepared dropouts for the G.E.D. Instead of closing the center down as she was sent to do, she helped turn it into an actual high school.

“We start with this orientation: understand that you’re a member of the community being taught and cared for by other members of the community, and your mission is to get educated and go back into this community and serve the people,” Ms. Randall said.

Evidence of this belief system is everywhere. Even the two guidance counselors, Millie and Andrew, met in this school, married and came back to work here.

When you walk through the halls of Bushwick, you see glistening floors, a big colorful Peruvian/Inca combo mural splashed across one wall, and a table where students waited in an orderly line.

It was Social Work Day, the assistant principal, Max Catala, explained; students were lined up to be tested voluntarily for H.I.V./AIDS. Every few years, the disease takes the lives of some students.

Not everyone has a hard-knock life. Alan, who dropped by to talk to his young science teachers, Kachentha and Edelyne, was never in trouble in his previous schools.

“I just wasn’t connected,” he said. “I became a different person here. I saw this school save many people’s lives. They come back and talk to us about it.”

His goal after he graduates in June is to go to SUNY-Albany, major in political science and eventually become an entertainment lawyer.

As we walked on, I was struck by the free and easy feeling. There is only one school safety officer and no scanner. Ms. Randall explained: “We’re still on the safe school list. The students follow strict rules of conduct, though many carry anger and rage with them. We have gang members here, but we’ve never had to remove a weapon or stop a serious fight or tell someone to remove their beads.”

Their hats and phones are another story.

“Sombrero,” said Mr. Catala to one student, and suddenly the student whisked the hat off his head and stuffed it inside his pocket.

“Phone,” Ms. Randall said, and a young woman dropped her pink phone into her purse.

Aniah, also graduating in June, wants to major in education at Howard University and return as a teacher at Bushwick if it doesn’t close. What inspired her, she said, is that “the staff is here for you mentally, emotionally and physically.”

To these young people, the staff is irreplaceable because it has longevity, comes largely out of the community and has proven its commitment to the code of community service.

As Ms. Randall put it, when commenting on the Turnaround Model that is being used by the Education Department to close her school and remove her and half the faculty: “Who will replace them? Teachers from the other 26 schools they’re closing down?”

As school leaders, I believe we should all oppose the closing of schools simply for the sake of meeting numbers. My memory of Bushwick speaks for itself and against the mayor’s policy of closing schools for disadvantaged children just because he can.

Last week, the community came out in force to a public hearing to give Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky all of the reasons I gave here against closing the school. I hope Tasia, an angelic-looking B.C.H.S. social worker was there; I’d like to give her the last word now:

“My fear is that some of the kids will walk away because of losing some of the relationships they’ve built here. They’re trying to turn this into a race to graduation, and that’s not the way our kids are. They need the time, and then they make it.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to the federal model being used to shut down Bushwick Community High School.