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Students rally for Smith High School

Alfred E. Smith High School may graduate less than half its students, but the career and technical institution – few remain in the Bronx and the city – does what some strictly academic high schools don’t: land students good jobs.

On Wednesday, December 16, Al Smith student protestors waved signs and shouted out their message at cars on E. 151st Street outside the school. The city Department of Education has proposed a phase-out of Al Smith; the school would accept no freshman from fall 2010 and would cease to exist in fall 2013.

“Smith is the best,” freshman Hector Rodriguez, 14, of Wakefield said. “I chose [the school] because I want to be a mechanic. If it closes, that opportunity will disappear.”

The DOE will hold a public hearing on its phase-out plan at Al Smith on Monday, January 11 at 6 p.m. In late January, the city Panel for Education Policy will vote. Each borough president appoints one panel member and the mayor appoints eight. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has questioned four Bronx school phase-out proposals but thus far not that of Al Smith.

The DOE has targeted Al Smith because of a graduation rate 37.5 percent in 2007-2008, 45.7 percent in 2008-2009. Some Al Smith teachers point to the increase as progress but the DOE is less than satisfied.

“Al Smith has not helped its students graduate ready for college,” DOE spokesman Will Havemann said.

What the DOE has failed to grasp is the value of career and technical education, Al Smith alumnus and auto tech teacher Bruce Harris said. Harris gets students internships at BMW and Lexus, where they gain important experience.

“We teach these kids a trade,” he said. “Not every kid is college-bound. We need plumbers and electricians.”

Take Al Smith teachers Pete Gonzalez and Orvil Boatswain, for example. Gonzalez attended the school in the 1970s. He ended up at Al Smith by chance but graduated ready to work. Today, Gonzalez owns his own oil heating firm. So does Boatswain, who graduated from Al Smith in 2000. Gonzalez, then a new teacher, mentored Boatswain when the young man began to miss school.

“I started at Al Smith in 1996,” Boatswain said. “I came here from Antigua to have surgery and persuaded my parents to let me stay. The school is a second home to me.”

Gonzalez was devastated when he heard the DOE’s plan. The school struggles because middle school guidance counselors send weak students to the school, he said. Al Smith students graduate with 20 more credits than students at regular high schools, Harris said.

Al Smith has earned Cs on its annual DOE progress reports three straight years, thanks in part to low credit accumulation and attendance rates, as well as unfavorable parent and teacher surveys. Some teachers dispute the stats. The DOE understands that the school offers unique career opportunities and will preserve those in the Bronx, not necessarily at Al Smith, Havemann said. Junior Abraham Sepulveda, 16, of Morris Park has interned at Turner Construction.

“Soon I’ll apply to Local 1, the plumber’s union,” Sepulveda said. “The school has done a lot for me.”

Reach reporter Daniel Beekman at 718 742-3383 or dbeekman@cnglocal.com

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