Killing Me Softly: The Slow Steady Demise of New York's Great High Schools

Once upon a time, New York's public education system was unrivaled. Especially noteworthy were the high schools. They were mostly named after the city's neighborhoods and prominent people who were household names in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

That time is now gone. The beginning of the end came, in New York, as in most other urban school systems, as a result of the unintended consequences of busing to achieve integration.

No matter how laudable the intention, the results proved disastrous. There wasn't an urban school system from New York to Los Angeles that didn't experience "white flight," re-segregation of their schools, and a steady decline in standards and discipline.

Over the past three decades various schemes aimed at reviving these once great institutions were implemented in fits and starts.

The political turmoil that resulted from busing demanded a less coercive solution to de facto segregation. So when the "magnet" school concept was introduced in the late 1960s it seemed just the ticket for achieving integration without the fanfare and the conflicts associated with busing.

With the school acting as a magnet, by providing specialized programs unavailable elsewhere, students would voluntarily choose to travel to a school that was neither in their own neighborhood, nor necessarily representative of their own racial grouping.

New York City introduced magnet schools too, but rather than overhauling the entire system, hybrid schools that incorporated elements of the magnet school gained popularity. Specialized programs that were unique to a school were encouraged, and students who wished to attend were granted waivers to travel to that school.

A school within a school program, with outside sources of funding like Gateway to Medical School, was established in about a half dozen high schools throughout the city that sought to find "diamonds in the rough" and offer enrichment programs in science and math with the hope of steering them towards careers in the health sciences.

But New York faced a more pressing problem for close to a quarter of a million of its high school students in the '70s and '80s. Crime and the breakdown of the public realm became synonymous with New York, whether it was the opening monologue on the Tonight Show, or its depiction in movies like Death Wish, Serpico, or Little Murders.

If the New York schools were to hold on to the best and brightest, safe havens would have to be provided for them. So without fanfare, the number of selective high schools proliferated in every borough, supplementing Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and Hunter College High School. By now, close to 10 percent of the high school population has made it into these oases of learning.

Last year, when a fire burned the buses operated by the private bus service that transported students from Queens to Bronx Science, I was shocked to learn that over 500 students commuted daily, at a cost of over $2,000 per pupil, paid out of pocket by their parents! I pass these buses on the way to work at my own school each day, but I had no idea that the numbers were so great. I asked friends who attended Bronx Science back in the '60s about the number of kids from Queens, and they told me, as I had suspected, that it was only a handful.

In a bygone era, almost all of these students would be attending the first-rate high schools that existed in Queens. But increasingly, the "strivers" have found sanctuaries, while the old comprehensive high schools become dumping grounds for the lowest achievers. In reality, a kind of apartheid has quietly taken hold without notice.

It should come as no surprise then that the small school agenda advanced by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and a host of other sources of outside funding would find a welcome home in New York.

Now, literally hundreds of new small high schools, housed in the great old buildings, have been created ex-nihilo. A virtual smorgasbord of unlimited choices has been offered up so now everybody can exercise their "free choice."

But just how "free" is that choice? For the enormous immigrant community, many of whom have little or no English language facility, navigating the arcane application process to these new small schools is next to impossible.

Put another way, imagine that you go shopping for mayonnaise tomorrow and discover that Hellman's and Miracle Whip have been replaced by two dozen new brands, none of which you've ever heard of, let alone tasted. Now try and eat your way through them until you find the right one! That is the daunting task faced by myriads of parent's as they attempt to navigate their way through the maze of unrecognizable new schools.

The vital function that the local high school had as an anchor and focal point to the community has been destroyed.

If you are living in the Bronx and get accepted to a school in Queens, you're free to go there. There are no geographic barriers to high school attendance.

Transportation costs for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 2005-2006 ran $161.5 million, and the city failed to reimburse much of that cost. Now the MTA is demanding that kids pay for their metro cards. With austerity measures leading to transit cuts, we can only imagine the fall-off in on time arrival at the schoolhouse in the coming years.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of students are now riding long distances on an overtaxed mass transit system isn't even a consideration for a mayor who claims to be at the forefront of the Green Movement. One might even argue that having kids walk to school would fit his anti-obesity agenda and his war on trans-fats.

Parental involvement, once considered vital to the life of a school and the well being of a child, is another casualty of this folly. With a large proportion of students coming from single parent homes, what are the chances that a mother coming home after work in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, will travel to the PTA meeting or open school night in Jamaica, Queens?

In the name of freedom and choice, we have atomized the community, and removed the school from the neighborhood public square. By accepting the absurd notion that a building can fail, we have set up a perpetual motion mechanism for shuffling underclass low performers from failed school to new school, until that school is declared a failure under No Child Left Behind and now Race To The Top.

An insidious two-tier system of education has been created right under our noses, while the claque who helped create it declares that education is the civil rights issue of our day!

The names Tilden, Lafayette, Jackson, Columbus, Jamaica, to name just a few, have been tossed into the dustbin of history. A school system that once Americanized millions, and introduced them to all aspects of civitas and tradition through the neighborhood high school experience has been scrapped in favor of an almost mind numbing menu of small schools whose names you can't remember.

We find ourselves buffeted by schemes and fads that are foisted upon an unsuspecting citizenry by philanthropists and politicians who have no connection to or appreciation of how life is lived by ordinary people looking to better themselves. Whimsy has become the new governance, much to the detriment of our children.