NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama's visit on Friday to a Brooklyn public school operated in partnership with IBM puts him, perhaps unwittingly, in the thick of a charged battle over education policy in the nation's largest school system.
The school, Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech, was touted by Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address. "Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, collaboration between New York public schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree," he said. "We need to give every American student opportunities like this."
But inside the building that houses P-Tech is what's left of Paul Robeson High School -- as many as 50 students, three teachers and a couple of administrators who also work in the classroom. Robeson is being phased out. It stopped admitting ninth graders in 2011-2012, when P-Tech moved in, along with another school.
The presidential visit awkwardly highlights questions that have roiled New York during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's three terms in office, including who schools are built for, and who gets to run them. The questions fueled the Democratic mayoral primary campaign, in which Public Advocate Bill de Blasio trounced opponents in part by opposing Bloomberg's education policies.
Obama will use his visit on Friday to urge congressional budget conferees to boost the middle class by increasing funds for career education, according to the White House. Federal budget sequestration is slated to cut $1.2 trillion from vocational school funding over the next decade.
P-Tech represents a new breed of technical education. It opened in 2011 with about 100 students, and will likely have as many as 450 students by next year. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) are among the officials who have sought to copy P-Tech's model.
Bloomberg's time as mayor have been defined by school turnover. While charter schools have received the most attention, Bloomberg created 654 new schools -- of which only 173 were charters -- and shuttered 164 schools for low academic performance. Many of them are small schools. (A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study of 101 such small schools found their students 7 percent more likely to attend college than peers in big public schools.) Many of the new schools have moved into buildings being vacated by doomed schools as they're phased out, a process city school officials call "co-location."
The school closings also are unpopular with some school communities. "The whole closing of schools is musical chairs," said Stefanie Siegel, who left Robeson in 2012 after teaching there for almost a quarter-century. "It does a lot of damage to community."
Robeson opened in the 1980s in partnership with Salomon Brothers, the Wall Street firm where Bloomberg started his career. As Siegel described it, the firm's promises were similar to IBM's for P-Tech.
But in 2002, Bloomberg and his schools chancellor Joel Klein started the small schools movement. Many big high schools were disbanded, and students who didn't attend the new schools shifted to the remaining big schools.
Robeson, which had a capacity of 1,000 students, Siegel said, found itself with 1,500 in 2005. "That's when we started having a lot of incidents, gang issues, things that didn't come into the building before that," Siegel said. "This is the story of all the schools that got closed down. We had the lowest dropout rates in the city, kids didn't leave, but it wasn't balanced. what it became was over 30 percent high-needs students, and no institution can survive that sudden change." A longtime basketball coach faced allegations of a long-term affair with a former student, and killed himself. A few abrupt changes of principals followed.
Scores dropped, and the city school governance panel -- whose members are mostly appointed by Bloomberg -- decided the school should be closed. A lawsuit filed by the United Federation of Teachers union stalled the closure for a year, allowing teachers and students fighting to save Robeson time to improve graduation rates.
But again in 2011, Robeson wound up on the city's closure list. “Roughly half of the kids who come to this school will graduate,” Deputy Chancellor John White -- who now oversees education in Louisiana -- said at a hearing, as reported by the GothamSchools blog. “Our goal is to change the outcome for kids.”
Lizabeth Cooper, a 2012 Robeson alumna who advocated for the school and now studies at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, said her school was full of energy until it was slated for closure.
"Everything that was, wasn't anymore," Cooper said. "If you yell at someone, the prettiest person in the world, 'You're ugly, you're ugly, you're ugly,' at some point they're going to think they're ugly. That's what the media did to my school -- they drained it, and they turned it into crap, and that's what my school became."
When P-Tech moved into the building, the two schools shared a cafeteria. Robeson students found themselves eating lunch at 2 p.m. The students lost access to parts of the building. The remaining Robeson students, Siegel said, are mostly "overage, unaccredited kids."
The Robeson students are "second-class citizens," said Justin Wedes, an Occupy Wall Street activist who worked with Robeson. "They're stuck on a sinking ship." From 5 to 15 students regularly attend, he said.
But P-Tech's history isn't stopping closure critics, like de Blasio and United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, from planning Friday appearances at the school for Obama's visit. Mulgrew has been a longtime advocate for career education and a strong proponent of schools like P-Tech.
"Bloomberg now gets to say he did a lot of career and technical education," Mulgrew said in an interview, giving the mayor a rare nod. "In P-Tech, you have industry partners working hand in hand with the school. … It has industry partners, an agreement with higher education and it really engages kids in a very modern skill set."
Mulgrew said his support for P-Tech shouldn't be mixed with his views on school closings. "What the Department of Education has done with closing schools, I am pretty much on the record as, [saying they are] disgusting," he said. "But that doesn't mean that we're not going to support new schools that are opening in those buildings. It's not the fault of the school that it 's what the Department of Education has done.
"This is not about closing schools and co-locations," Mulgrew said. "This is about, we want to celebrate this school."
Others see another purpose in Obama's P-Tech stop: "He needs some good news at this point because of the health care thing," said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at the CUNY Grad Center.