Vol. 15, No. 9      April 25 - May 8, 2002


Student Group Welcomes Small Schools


When Helen Colon makes her way to class at John F. Kennedy High School, one of the city's biggest high schools, she bumps elbows with 4,000 other teens.

"Sometimes, you can't even get to your class on time because the hallway is so crowded," said Colon, a sophomore and a member of Sistas and Brothas United (SBU), a grassroots student leadership group.

Kennedy, which takes students from all over the northwest Bronx and upper Manhattan, occupies an eight-story building in Marble Hill. The school's escalators are frequently out of order, making the normal between-class rush seem like a marathon course. Last year, Colon had gym class on the second floor and had five minutes to finish changing and race up to the eighth floor for her history class. "Imagine going up all those stairs in the summertime -- Oh my God," Colon remarked.

These are typical travails in the Bronx, where large high schools are the norm. Now, education officials are plotting to change all that. Two weeks ago, Bronx High Schools Superintendent Norman Wechsler announced his office would create 19 new small high schools in the borough over the next two years. The theme-based schools would be located within these larger high schools, including Kennedy, Walton and Evander, the schools most local students are zoned for.

At SBU's office on Jerome Avenue and Kingsbridge Road, students welcomed the proposed changes. "Teachers should dedicate more time to the students, but they can't do that because there's too many," said Jomarie Noboa, an SBU member and a junior at Walton High School.

Colon envies her cousin, who transferred from a large Bronx high school to a school in New Jersey with just 200 students. "Everyone knows each other," she said. "The teacher knows all the students. If you're sitting in the back and you're shy and you look frustrated, the teacher will say to you, 'Are you sure you understand?'"

In their own schools, Colon and Noboa say that even this late in the school year, some teachers still rely on seating charts to remember students' names because they have so many students to keep track of. Both students said they have never seen an assistant principal and don't know his or her name and Colon said she doesn't even know who her principal is.

Educators say smaller schools mean more personal attention for students and better academic performance. In schools like Walton and Kennedy, many students are struggling to pass and graduate. Students say their workload has gotten even harder since the state mandated that all students pass Regents exams. Meanwhile, their peers in small Bronx schools far outperform them in state exams and graduation rates. Colon said her cousin, who struggled at her former large high school, now gets A's.

Students also think smaller schools could help improve security. "Somebody's always getting hurt," Colon said. "There's a fight at least three times a week. I think having less people in one school, there's less people getting on each other's nerves."

SBU member Gabriel Albuerme already knows what it's like to be in a small school, having recently transferred into Banana Kelly, a school of 210 students in the south Bronx. "I felt I needed a smaller classroom environment because it made it easier," he said. "There's more personal contact between the teacher and student. In a big class, the most a teacher can give you is 45 seconds to a minute."

Students are also excited about having options, since the 19 new schools will be open to all Bronx students by lottery. Colon would like to attend a school where she could learn to draw and paint.

The students think that the personal attention provided by small schools just may give their struggling peers the push they need to get by. "That's what they need," Noboa said. "They want people to be there for them and listen to them."

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