William H Taft Educational Campus
Long one of the most troubled schools in the city, Taft High School has been divided into six small, autonomous high schools in an effort to make the building safer and boost academic achievement.
Now called Taft Educational Campus, the building is safer than it was before the small schools opened, beginning in 2003, teachers and administrators agree. However in 2011, Taft landed on the city's so-called "impact list" of dangerous schools, a designation that gives it access to more safety officers and other supports like attendance teachers.
The most successful of the small schools, the Bronx High School of Medical Science, has a high graduation rate, good attendance, and students who are mostly attentive and engaged. Teachers agree the school is orderly; students say they feel safe most of the time. Students wear green scrubs and have the chance to shadow health care professionals at their jobs. The medical science program only accepts students with good grades and test scores.
The other schools in the building mostly serve students who are far behind in their studies. Many are new immigrants learning English. A large proportion receives special education services. Each of the schools has a theme designed to keep kids engaged: Students have their own television studio at Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications. They design their own businesses at Bronx High School of Business, go on overnight trips at the Bronx Collegiate Academy, and learn to dance, act and draw at DreamYard Prep. Another school, the all boys' Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men, opened in 2004, was not successful and is being phased out for poor performance. Claremont International High School, a school for new immigrants, opened in its place in 2012.
Students play on building-wide sports teams, including baseball, basketball, track, soccer and volleyball. Those with children make use of a LYFE daycare center. A health clinic serves all students.
On our visit, the Taft complex seemed calm and most kids seemed happy enough, although attendance was noticeably low. Teachers and administrators say the building is mostly safe, but gang activity on the surrounding streets sometimes spills into the school—as it did in 2010 when a student was stabbed outside and staggered inside to get help. Students responding to the Department of Education's annual survey said there's fighting and bullying inside the school as well. Still, all things are relative.
"The building is like a paradise compared to what it was," said Nasib Hoxha, principal of Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications who was assistant principal of security in the old Taft. "It's like a vacation resort."
In 2002, just before the Department of Education announced plans to phase out Taft, teachers there threatened to walk off the job because of the high level of violence, which included repeated assaults on teachers. A teacher, Jonathan Levin, was murdered at his home in 1997 by a former student; a small school in the building is now named for him.
After a few years of gains, the graduation and attendance rates of most of the small schools are on the decline. The new schools were initially successful because they had fewer challenging students and no English Language Learners or special needs students, Hoxha said. Moreover, the schools were able to admit only students who were interested in the theme; as years went by, the Department of Education increasingly assigned students, to the small schools in Taft who had not expressed an interest, often mid-year.
"The problem is not with the kids who have chosen to be here," Hoxha said. "The problem is the kids who come in the middle of the year." These students are often from other countries and some cannot read in their native language, he said. (Clara Hemphill, December 2011)