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« What to do with extra classrooms?

As many parts of the US (and the world) face the difficult issue of school closings — often due to funding, changing demographics, or academic standards — there is tremendous pain and heartache that comes with each decision, good or bad. Case in point, the pending closure of the George W. Wingate High School in New York City, turning the historic school into several smaller learning academies:

When the George W. Wingate High School opened in 1955, excited students helped unpack the furniture and baseball legend Jackie Robinson attended the school’s dedication. Trophy cases soon brimmed with accomplishments at the Brooklyn school that would graduate a future U.S. senator.

But today is a very different story for this historic school:

All that is little more than a memory now. The Class of 2006 will be the school’s last.

Wingate, a long-troubled institution, is one of 20 public high schools in New York City being phased out over seven years, a historic spate of closures by officials intent on raising student achievement and staff accountability. For the final class, the mood grows glum when talk turns to carrying school spirit forward.

And even for students who will be graduating, this comes as a very difficult time for them:

“There’s no Wingate to come back to,” mourned 18-year-old Joshanie Walcott on a recent day.

“We have the building,” another student said.

“That’s not the same,” she replied.

Throughout the US in the last decade or so, there has been a increase in the numbers of large urban high schools being divided into smaller ‘learning academies’. This has allowed core resources (gymnasiums, cafeterias, etc.) to be shared while supporting several unique educational programs to be developed. In addition, an opportunity to have smaller teacher/student ratios to support small learning accademies also existed.

It’s true that Wingate’s four-story, banjo-shaped structure remains — but today it houses four small secondary schools along with Wingate’s last class of 209 students.

Wingate once had 2,700 students, but every year since 2003, as a class has graduated, its enrollment has shrunk. It had about 150 teachers and staff; now it has 26. Academic programs were cut, and the school now occupies a single floor in the building.

For NYC, the small schools movement has been a critical part of their evolving strategy to resurrect previously failing schools [see the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop and Dr. Mike Klonsky’s work for a wonderful range of resources within this national movement] :

In the last three years, the nation’s largest school system has launched nearly 150 “small” schools — fewer than 600 students each — and 36 more are on the way this fall.

They are occupying the facilities of phased-out schools that have been failing for years. Wingate, for example, had a graduation rate of less than 30 percent four years ago and was on a state list of highly troubled schools.

“You need to create a new culture. People get used to a culture of failure,” said city schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

“I hate to close schools,” he said, “but when a school is a perennial non-performer, I think you have to create options for the kids.”

For many alums and current students, however, this strategic shift from one large school to several smaller ‘thematic’ units is a challenging pill to swallow:

But Wingate High students and alumni reject the notion that a campus of different schools, which generally have little to do with each other, is the same as one, unified Wingate High School.

The staff has tried to keep the last class’s morale up.

Hogan let Senior Week — which has silly features such as “Pajama Day” — last two weeks instead of one. Students on the honor roll will be treated to Broadway plays.

This year’s students will have a senior trip and a prom like any other senior class. The yearbook’s cover will be a collage of previous Mosaic covers.

But the impending closure has also brought painful differences from past years.

Student Rosa Aponte noted that during her senior year, when students usually get access to the broadest range of courses, Wingate has slashed many programs. The aviation program is gone, and so are programs in nursing, construction and business.

“They took all that from us,” she said.

Adding to the bitterness is a certain jealousy toward the other schools — they get the new chairs, new tables, new everything.

Do you know of any similar stories in your community? And has it been a positive or difficult process to go through?

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