Born as a Tribute but Faltering, a Bronx School Nears Its End

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The killing of Jonathan M. Levin, a son of the Time Warner chairman, by one of his former high school students in 1997 transfixed a city that was breaking free of its crime-ridden past.

Five years later, the New York City Education Department opened Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications in the same South Bronx building where he had taught, declaring it "a living tribute" to the English teacher's "spirit, values, commitment and impassioned belief" that every child has a right to a quality education.

But in the past few years, a quality education at Levin High School became harder to come by. Money for a college scholarship in Mr. Levin's name dried up. A ball field that a Mets official helped pay for fell into disrepair. Computers sat untouched, applications to the school fell and the graduation rate sank to 31 percent, the fifth-lowest in the city.

Now, just a decade after it opened, New York has deemed Levin High School a failure, and is preparing to close it down.

Closing schools, and replacing them with new ones, has become a hallmark of education reform efforts around the country, promoted by the Obama administration and embraced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has shuttered 142 of them since taking office in 2002 and, in his final year, is moving to close 24 more. The central, free-market premise is that schools that fail to deliver should not be permitted to continue, and that their buildings could be better used to experiment with new ideas, often with new personnel.

The policy has been repeatedly criticized by teachers' unions, and is now also under attack by several Democratic candidates for mayor, who in varying degrees have all pledged to slow or halt the process of closing schools. Civil-rights groups have filed complaints with the federal Education Department asserting that the policy has a disproportionate effect on black and Hispanic students.

The critics contend that school systems like New York's are more interested in letting schools fail, to accelerate the process of creating new schools, than in helping struggling schools, and the students in them, succeed.

"We have a mayor who treats the act of closing a school as the accomplishment," said Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate and, as one of five Democratic mayoral hopefuls, a supporter of a moratorium on closings. "What should be a last resort is now the go-to policy, and kids are suffering the consequences."

There may be no better example for weighing these arguments than Levin High School, which, as it happens, is one of seven small schools operating inside the shell of William Howard Taft High School, Jonathan Levin's school, which was closed for poor performance.

"It is actually very painful," said Mr. Levin's father, Gerald M. Levin, 73, who retired from Time Warner in 2001. The schools chancellor personally called Mr. Levin in January to prepare him for the heartbreak. "I said that: 'Well, there are some special things taking place at that school and those statistics may belie the efforts that encourage a couple of students to go on. We could have future leaders and future writers somewhere in that group.' "

A Mission of Helping

It was always the school's mission to tackle the needs of poor students, the very population Jonathan Levin steered his career toward. Then, as now, poverty and danger were elements of any child's day. In recent years, metal detectors were placed at the main entrance and security guards hovered throughout the ground floor hallways. In a school survey last year, half of all students said they did not always feel safe in the halls, restrooms and locker rooms.

The killing of Mr. Levin (pronounced luh-VIN) on May 30, 1997, sent his students and colleagues into waves of grief. His body was discovered, bound with duct tape, in his apartment on the Upper West Side. The police said he had been tortured with a knife for his bank card number and shot in the back of his head. At his funeral, some of his students propped a cardboard sign atop his plain wooden coffin with the words: "We are his kids."

A former student, Corey Arthur, was convicted of second-degree murder, and is serving 25 years to life.

Mr. Levin's death, at age 31, prompted waves of cash to pour in. The money grew to around $750,000, and was mostly used for college scholarships. And the school had a "hook," said Nasib Hoxha, 53, the principal at Levin since its inception. It was to have a focus on media, helped by a grant proposal Mr. Levin wrote for media studies that was posthumously awarded.

Mr. Hoxha said the school was an early success. For five straight years, he said, attendance was around 90 percent. Elite colleges accepted some of his graduates, and six graduates enrolled in Syracuse University in a single year.

"But the numbers have changed," Mr. Hoxha said. "The system is not set up to address the needs of the community."

Over the past five years, he said, the school has taken in increasing numbers of children arriving from the Dominican Republic and speaking no English. One year, he said, 37 of those students were placed in his 11th grade.

And many students left midyear, returning to the Dominican Republic and not coming back for months, or ever. In 2011, Mr. Hoxha said, 250 students, more than half the student body, left in the middle of the year.

"The problem here is you take this school out, who's going to address these students now?" Mr. Hoxha asked. "Kids are still going to come in from another country."

Overwhelming Changes

Critics of the way the city handles school closings say that schools with Levin's student profile are often set up to fail. Levin's graduation statistics show that between 2009-10 and 2011-12, as the percentage of students classified as "English language learners" shot up to 40, from 29, the graduation rate fell to 31 percent, from 50 percent.

The changes overwhelmed the school. Some who worked with Mr. Hoxha praised his character and devotion to students.

"Hoxha is by the books," said Lucia Ramistella, 61, a former assistant principal at Levin. She said Mr. Hoxha would never stand for teachers' altering grades to make the school look good. "There are schools where, I know, teachers have gotten caught and are recycled in the system."

But Lesley A. Terry, a former English teacher at the school who had worked with Mr. Levin, said several teachers were frustrated by Mr. Hoxha, finding him dispassionate. In April, state education officials, during a quality review, found that despite the school's promise of a "groundbreaking, media-based education," carts of laptop computers often remained out of students' hands. Ms. Terry said the school should have strengthened its theme as a media center, since it had Don Cerrone, a veteran Hollywood grip with credits on "Glory" and "The Shawshank Redemption," on its staff.

Mr. Hoxha tried altering the daily structure of the school. Instead of students moving from classroom to classroom between periods, the standard method, he had them stay in the same room, with the teachers moving instead, so the children would not linger in the halls, arrive late for classes or leave at midday.

"After a while, that did not work," said Ms. Terry, who retired in July after 30 years of teaching in the Taft building. "Kids were tired of sitting in one room all day long. Some kids, if the teacher didn't have control, would up and walk out of the room."

Graduation Rates

Marc Sternberg, a deputy chancellor in the city's Education Department, acknowledged that Levin had a lot of students with high needs. But he saw its failures in a different way.

In 2010, the city began publishing graduation rates in the directory of high schools given to eighth graders, in keeping with the Bloomberg administration's free-market approach to education. And it had the intended result.

In the next year, applications shot up at schools with high graduation rates; the reverse happened at schools with low rates. Levin's enrollment dipped to 339 this year, from 484 in 2007. The number of non-English-speaking students with high needs did not so much grow as become a larger part of the school. And because financing is based on enrollment, the school lost money, and amenities like the baseball field could not be kept up.

Sure, the city could try a round of interventions to try to resuscitate the Levin High School, Mr. Sternberg said.

"But we should not be patient," he said. "There needs to be urgency here."

He also said several schools with comparable student makeups, including two at the Taft complex, were "getting dramatically different outcomes," keeping up a 50 percent graduation rate or greater.

A 2009 study by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that new public schools tended to do better than the schools they replaced, but that their graduation rates and attendance began to slip after a few years.

"What we are doing now is we are starting from scratch after having just started from scratch," said Clara Hemphill, who is project director for the center and the editor of insideschools.org, a guide for parents. "We cannot keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect getting a different result, creating another brand new small school which is just like the other brand new small schools. It is not going to solve the problem."

Replacement's Goal

Jonathan Levin's name will not adorn the school that replaces it, known for now as 09X350, though Mr. Sternberg said the city would find a way to honor Mr. Levin. Housing grades 6 through 12, he said, the school's aim will be to catch lagging students early. The school will work in tandem with Claremont International High School, which is already occupying part of the building and is designed to serve recent immigrants.

The closing of Levin is expected to be approved by the Panel for Educational Policy, a school oversight board controlled by the mayor, on March 11. Last month, in Levin's auditorium, the Education Department held its required public hearing on the closing, and students, teachers, union leaders and others spent nearly five hours trying to talk Mr. Sternberg and other city officials into changing their minds.

Though many agreed it was failing, they said the theme at the center of it -- the media program Mr. Levin envisioned -- was so vibrant it meant the entire institution deserved a second chance.

Several alumni singled out Mr. Cerrone, the Hollywood veteran, in the audience, crediting him with giving them a lifeline to their futures. He was "like a father to many of us," said Quintasia Stratton, who graduated in 2008. "When I got here, all I had to do was say, 'Hey, what's that?' And he put a $600 camera in my hands and trusted me with it."

One of those in attendance was Mr. Levin's mother, Carol N. Levin. His death prompted her to put her own teaching degree to use. By 2005, she had taken a job at the Bronx High School of Business, in the same building where her son had worked, which last year got its third consecutive C grade on a progress report and is seen as being on its last legs.

"Jon just had such a feel for poor, disenfranchised students," his mother, 72, said in an interview last week. "He held them to a standard. He expected great things from them."

At the public hearing, she praised Mr. Cerrone and lashed into the officials for evaluating the school as if it were a business. "I just hope that everything that has happened tonight will help to keep the doors open, although I don't feel particularly optimistic about this," she said.

"I want to thank you for your patience," she concluded, "for those who've stayed the night. And, victory might be ours."

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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