Columbus High School community outraged

Columbus High School students, teachers and alumni were horrified when the city Department of Education announced plans to close and replace the 70-year old institution. Photo by Robert Benimoff

Christopher Columbus High School students, parents, teachers and alumni, rocked by news that the city Department of Education plans to shutter the 70-year old institution (not the building), will fight to keep Columbus open. Hundreds of Explorers faithful plan to attend a public hearing on the DOE’s proposal on Thursday, January 7.

Challenged students

Some teachers contend that Columbus does its best to educate the borough’s most challenged students, those that newer and smaller schools refuse. In the past, half of new Columbus freshman and sophomores at met standards in English and math. By 2005, only 6 percents met standards in English and 14 in math, union staffer and teacher Christine Rowland said.

Karen Sherwood has taught at Columbus for 17 years. Her students often miss school to work, attend to family issues or make trouble; many never show up, she shared.

“I work very hard,” Sherwood, 57, said. “The other teachers do, too. But [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg does what he wants.”

Sherwood and others think Bloomberg and DOE Chancellor Joel Klein want to replace large schools staffed by union teachers with small schools and charter schools. Columbus could be replaced, at least in part, by a charter school, DOE spokesman Will Havemann said.

Popular principal

Students describe Columbus principal Lisa Fuentes as a second mother and superb mentor. Many alumni don’t want to see the neighborhood school and its history disappear. Dennis Class, who graduated from Columbus in 2001 and coached football later, praised Fuentes.

“She cares about her students,” Class said. “She puts in tremendous hours.”

More than 1,000 students and alumni have flooded online Facebook pages founded to save the school. Yasmine Borbon, a college freshman who graduated from Columbus in 2009, is “heartbroken.” She enrolled at the school as a sophomore from the Dominican Republic.

“So many students love the school,” Borbon, 17, said. “Columbus is a family.”

Michael Morgan, a Columbus senior who attends the Renaissance afternoon program for students who need guidance and extra credits, agreed.

“When I started at Columbus I was not a good student,” Morgan, 17, said. “I was often disrespectful. The school has helped me mature.”

Statistical disagreements

Under the DOE’s proposals, Columbus and Global Enterprise Academy, a comparably new small high school on the Columbus campus, would enroll no new ninth graders starting fall 2010, Havemann said. Columbus’ graduation rate was 36.9 percent in 2007-2008 and 40 percent in 2008-2009.

Some Columbus boosters dispute the DOE statistics and argue that the school has made progress. Many Columbus students need more than four years to graduate but eventually succeed, school volunteer Pat Williams said. Many small school principals fudge grades; not Fuentes, Williams added. Columbus’ six-year graduation rate is 54 percent, Havemann said. Its seven-year rate was 81.5 percent, Rowland countered.

Columbus earned a D on its DOE progress report for 2008-2009 and a C on its report for 2007-2008 but the DOE changed its rubric, Rowland said. The DOE awards progress report grades based on student test results, graduation and attendance rates and student and parent surveys. Schools are rewarded or punished based on the grades. Some are closed and replaced by smaller schools.

Small schools

In addition to Global Enterprise, the Columbus campus is home to Pelham Preparatory Academy, Astor Collegiate High School and the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, all small schools that earned high DOE progress report grades for 2008-2009.

In theory, small schools offer students more individual attention. But Sherwood contends that small schools don’t equal smaller classes. Qendresa Kajtazaj, a 2008 Columbus graduate, has friends who attended small high schools.

“I don’t feel any less smart,” Kajtazaj said.

Havemann asked that no one blame challenged Columbus students for the planned closure; other schools educate similiar students better, he said.

Plans to fight

Charlie Friedman graduated from Columbus in 1978. His father taught at the school for more than 30 years. He called the DOE’s argument “bogus.”

“Don’t train kids for tests,” Friedman said. “Train kids for life.”

The DOE should have discussed its proposal with Columbus students, parents and teachers, Rowland said. Rowland has 100 Columbus success stories to tell. She and her students are determined to keep the school open.

“We want a Christmas miracle,” Rowland said.

Reach reporter Daniel Beekman at 718 742-3383

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