A Brooklyn School Saved Lives, and Some Now Try to Return the Favor

Michael Powell, New York Times

I was 18 years old with a baby and three high school credits. I was a gangbanger. I was shot and left for dead.

My life was a pane of glass fractured into a thousand shards.

And this place saved me.

To sit in the audience at Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn last Wednesday evening, to watch as young black and Latino women and men walked to a microphone and, with anger and tears and eloquence, pleaded with officials of New York City’s Department of Education to keep their school open, was to feel privileged.

It is rare in education and in life to hear love put so passionately into words.

“Where would I be without this school family? I would be in jail. I would be dead,” said Iran Rosario, a tall bear of a man who wandered in here as a lost 18-year-old and now returned 14 years later as a teacher. “Friends tell you what you want to hear; family tells you what you need to hear.

“They did that for me, and saved my life.”

New York City has many mysteries, some romantic, some frightening, some simply maddening. The uncertain fate of Bushwick Community High School falls into that last category. It is a last-chance place for last-chance kids. Its teachers and staff members search out 17- and 18-year-olds, many with fewer than 10 credits of the 44 needed for a Regents diploma, and wage an unremitting struggle to turn these children into graduates and adults.

Few who venture to this corner of Bushwick walk away unmoved. Members of the state Board of Regents sing its praises, as have visitors from across the city.

But that could all come to an end on Thursday night. The Education Department has recommended that the Panel for Education Policy, which is controlled by the mayor, vote to lay off the principal and half the staff. Give department officials credit: they don’t really try to argue their indictment on the merits, but on the metrics — that is, test scores and graduation rates.

A majority of the students fail to graduate within six years, which is one of the city’s inviolate metrics. Right-o. If a young man wanders into this high school at 18 with five credits to his name, the odds are strikingly good that he will not graduate within six years of his freshman year.

The Panel for Education Policy could vote to let the school remain untouched. That’s unlikely. Mayor Bloomberg’s education officials have recommended shutting down 140 schools, and this panel has voted in the mayor’s favor 140 times.

They make the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles look like independence-minded bleeding hearts.

We live in an era of educational mantras become dogma; we are convinced that everything within a school’s walls is measurable. An art teacher teaching pottery; an English teacher on the joys of Maya Angelou? All can be reduced profitably to a number.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, came of professional age in several of the city’s more innovative public schools. But he is a firm convert to the scientism of metrics. As he noted not long ago: “If I’m a teacher, I’m going to look closely at what that exam is measuring and key my curriculum and my work to passing that exam. That is the reality of what high-stakes exams are designed to do.”


But last year department officials administered the high school’s annual “quality review.” It is perhaps worth noting what officials saw with their own eyes, as opposed to what they can reduce to a row of numbers on paper. Bushwick Community High School is “effective,” teachers demonstrate genuine “expertise” and the “pedagogy is aligned to schoolwide goals.”

“A clear sense of the vision and mission of the school is pervasive throughout the building,” the city concluded.

MR. POLAKOW-SURANSKY came to this high school for the hearing last week. He sat, stoically, through nearly three hours of tearful speeches and boisterous cheers. At the end, in a voice soft, almost sad, he spoke.

“This is a school that looks at the whole child,” he said to a hushed auditorium. “This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives.”

“I want you to know I will take these stories back and share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott,” he continued. “Whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here.”

The sound was of a man caught between bureaucratic imperative and the evidence offered by his eyes and ears.