Judged a Failure by the Data, a School Succeeds Where It Counts
Aniah McAllister was a lost girl of New York, one of tens of thousands of children edging toward an adulthood drained of hope.
At 18, she possessed just 17 high school credits; she knew the streets and little more. She wandered, almost on a whim, into Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn, a last-chance school for last-chance kids.
Two years later?
“I’m 20 years old, I have 46 credits, and I want to go to college.”
Ms. McAllister shakes her head, as if amazed to have just claimed that desire as her own. “This school made realize,” she says, “that I am much better than I thought I was.”
That’s a pretty fair bottom line for any school, although in the up-is-down world of public education in New York, it might just be an epitaph for this small marvel of a high school. Known as a transfer high school, Bushwick Community admits only those teenagers who have failed elsewhere. Most students enter at age 17 or 18, and most have fewer than 10 credits.
You can muck around quite a bit trying to find someone who has walked the school’s corridors, talked to its students and faculty, and come away unmoved. Most sound like Kathleen M. Cashin, a member of the State Board of Regents and a former superintendent. “They care for the neediest with love and rigor,” she said. “They are a tribute to public education.”
Yet Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose insistence that he has presided over an educational miracle recognizes few bounds of contrary fact, has proposed laying off the principal and half the teachers before it can reopen for the next school year. City officials complain that a majority of students fail to graduate in six years.
This bill of indictment appears math-challenged.
If students enter at 17 or 18, with less than a year’s worth of credits, the chances seem strikingly good that the students will not graduate within six years of freshman year. (The State Education Department takes the view that the metrics, rather than the high school, are most likely broken.)
The city’s Education Department has adopted a resolutely cheery tone.
“This really empowers them to take ownership of this school,” a department spokesman said. “What kind of change can they imagine?”
Public education across the nation has sunk deep into a bog of metrics. We presume to measure teaching and achievement as a chemist does a proper mixture of chemicals. To this conceit, you can add the draconian demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which offers millions of dollars in help for poor urban schools only if city officials adhere to the same unyielding metrics.
This is a particular problem for a transfer high school, whose faculty takes children bruised by years of neglect. Bushwick Community is run, in part, by its faculty members, who offer the usual collection of the smart, the eccentric and the deeply committed found in most schools that work.
To sit with a dozen of the students at a community center not far from the high school was to watch as one girl nursed a baby and another spoke of living with her child in a shelter. Two had been tossed out of their family homes. Another lived with her grandmother on Coney Island — she commutes one and a half hours each way to this high school in Bushwick.
These are nonlinear kids with nonlinear lives.
There are no fairy tales in public education. These teachers are their own harshest critics. Yet the Education Department’s report card compares this school with other transfer schools, and gives it a 95 percent grade in improving student attendance, 90 percent for passing the English Regents exam and 100 percent for the math Regents.
All of which is fine, though not nearly as moving as listening to these teenagers talk of lives adrift until they washed ashore here.
Justin Soto, short and muscular with a goatee, raises his hand. “I had not passed a class since junior high school,” he says, as tears roll down his cheeks and a girl rubs his neck. “I’m 21, but I’m not a man yet. This school has given me a life.”
Ms. McAllister raises her hand. A year ago, she asked her teacher if she was smart enough to graduate. He spent an hour talking to her. Next year, she will attend Medgar Evers College. She, too, is crying.
“Failure was all I knew,” she says.
What, I ask, would you like to be?
“A teacher, oddly,” she says. “I mean, it’s inspiring when you know what you were and see what you are now.”