The Rise & Fall of Paul Robeson High School

Home Brooklyn Life The Rise & Fall of Paul Robeson High School
Athletic awards and trophies line the halls of Robeson. (Kim Chakanetsa/The Brooklyn Ink)
Athletic awards and trophies line the halls of Paul Robeson High School. (Kim Chakanetsa/The Brooklyn Ink)

by Kim Chakanetsa, Joe Deaux, Audrey Yoo

In February of 1984, Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School in Crown Heights shut its doors, beset by below-average attendance rates, dismal student performance and high dropout rates and deemed a failure by then-Chancellor Anthony Alvarado.

In the same beige-colored brick building on Albany Avenue, punctuated by its intricately stone-framed windows, the school reopened in the fall of 1985 with a new name—Paul Robeson High School—and with a new vision as a technical school. The vision had been fashioned out of the initiatives of corporations and community groups to help cut dropout rates, foster academic performance and cultivate extracurricular activities.

Robeson was a success. It created a career-oriented program that drew high-caliber pupils attracted to business and technology, as opposed to vocations in craftsmanship. Hamilton’s staff was completely overhauled and replaced with fresh teachers better suited to the new curriculum. The school accepted students solely through an application process, and many of them ranked among the top of their classes in their previous schools. Seventy-five percent read at or above their grade level. The school enjoyed over a decade of high graduation rates and low dropout rates, which led the The New York Times to report in 1997 that Robeson was “one of Brooklyn’s finer high schools.” Graduation rates remained above or around city average until 2004.

But after 2004 those rates failed to rise above the city average. In 2006, nearby Prospect Heights High School closed and funneled many of its students to Robeson, which then saw a spike in violence and a drop in overall academic environment. Finally, last month, as a raucous crowd roared its disapproval, the Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy ruled a high school that was once a beacon of public education was going to close.

Twenty-five years after its hopeful opening, Paul Robeson is scheduled to shut down in four years, facing the same fate as Alexander Hamilton. Its closure raised a question: did Paul Robeson High School fail, or was it allowed to fail?

Chapter 1: Robeson’s Rise and Road to Demise

In 1983, the Times reported that Chancellor Alvarado closed Hamilton because of “bad attendance and dropout rates, crime,” and “poor student performance.” (Ironically, these were the central reasons why the DOE decided to phase out Robeson.) The new school enrolled ninth graders only in its first year. Each successive year phased in a new class of students until the fourth year when it included all grades.

But Robeson none the less left neighbors angry because, as a Times editorial put it, career-oriented schools took their pick of nearby high school’s top students, thus leaving regular public high schools without many of their strongest students, which, in turn, hurt overall performance statistics. But by 1986 the Board of Education instituted new admissions criteria that required career-oriented schools (there were eight at the time) like Robeson to admit students through random admissions processes. Principals of career-oriented schools opposed the decision, arguing that it would diminish academic standards and learning environments. (In fact, by 2010, only two of those original eight schools had “A” ratings. The other five rated “C” or below. Murry Bergtraum High School received a “D” in 2010; Norman Thomas received an “F”; and John Dewey received a “C”. All three failed to make an overall “C” ranking for three-straight years, meaning these schools are reviewable for termination. The DOE is already phasing out John Dewey.)

Joyce Coppin was the Brooklyn High Schools Superintendent and chose Dr. Marcia Lyles as District 16’s superintendent—Robeson’s district in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Stefanie Siegel, a teacher at Robeson, says Lyles was a “visionary and dynamic leader” who “brought great programs and professional development to the school as well as a high expectations and a standard of excellence.”

Only a few blemishes appeared on Robeson’s record in the 1980s and 90s—most of them crime related. Robeson appeared in the news in 1989 when a stray bullet wounded a girl outside the school. In 1992 the city’s teacher’s union authorized walkouts because of a rise in guns on campus; a Robeson teacher found a .357 magnum on a 15-year-old student, and two other students clashed in a shootout. No one was injured or arrested. In 1998 a student was shot in the leg and robbed in front of the school. He lived. Meanwhile Robeson was still getting high marks in the classroom.

In 1999 the Reverend Jesse Jackson came to Robeson where, before a crowd of students, he called on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki to invest more in New York City’s public schools. Jackson had promised to be “principal for a day” that day at Robeson. The school’s graduation rate at the time was a healthy 13.9 percentage points higher than the city average.

Robeson graduates who have gone to college grace the walls of their alma mater. (Kim Chakanetsa/The Brooklyn Ink)
Robeson graduates who have gone to college grace the walls of their alma mater. (Kim Chakanetsa/The Brooklyn Ink)

But by the 2000s, performance began to slide. In the beginning of the decade the school still enjoyed graduation rates nine percentage points higher than the city average and dropout rates three times less than the average.

By mid-decade, however, the DOE had a new philosophy. It began closing larger high schools and mandated that Robeson take in many of these displaced students. A case study published in June of 2010, by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, reported that Robeson took hundreds of these students. “Many such students had a history of truancy and were much older than Robeson students in the same grades,” The New School study said. The school still had much to offer. In 2007, Jay Leno, who was friends with a teacher at the school, auctioned off his Tonight Show set as charity for Robeson’s acting troupe. This act reinvigorated interest in learning drama for some students. Though the gesture was received positively, it failed to inspire interest throughout other disciplines in the school. Class attendance rates continued to wane, and by the 2007-2008 school year, 43 percent reported skipping more than two months of classes.

By 2010 the staff struggled to maintain uniform order throughout the student body; Conrad Boyd, an English teacher at Robeson, is cited in The New School study saying that many students came from jails or correctional facilities and few teachers received training to handle the situation. By 2009 graduation rates plummeted to 46.4 percent, 21.7 percentage points below the city average. Robeson had succumbed to similar problems of its predecessor. The fate of Robeson grew dim.

Chapter 2: “For the school not to do well is a crime against the legacy of Robeson.”

Some of the teachers and students of Paul Robeson see the small school movement as being at the heart of the school’s gradual demise. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former school Chancellor Joel Klein promoted the movement, which began in the early 2000s. The movement sought to provide more support and attention to low performing students through the creation of smaller schools, according to the 2010 study by the Center for New York City Affairs. Since 2002, the education department has closed or is in the process of closing 91 schools, replacing them with smaller schools or charter schools, reported the Times.

The repercussions of closing three local high schools—Prospect Heights, Wingate, and Thomas Jefferson—directly involved Robeson. By the academic year 2005-06, the school, which was designed to hold a capacity of 1,100 students, had 1,528 students. The school became inundated with what Stefanie Siegel, who has taught at Robeson since 1991, refers to as “over-the-counter kids”—students from closed schools, correctional facilities, and from more transient families. Siegel explains that a bulk of these students had not chosen to attend Robeson and this was reflected in their behavior. “Whatever frustration they are carrying starts to color the atmosphere,” she says. Siegel noticed a distinct change at the school. “The vibe of the school was changing,” she explains. Had the general attitude of the student body been positive, Siegel believes, things would have been fine, but this was not the case.

Nijel Hill, a senior, had voluntarily applied to Robeson. When he arrived he discovered that it was less competitive than his former school. He remembers how different the academic environment was between the two institutions: “My freshman year I hated it.” When he raised his hand in class other students mocked him: “Why he trying to be all that?”

Also, when larger schools closed, rival gang members had to attend Robeson together. “We were always a ‘Blood School’,” explains Siegel, referring to long-held gang affiliations among students. Normally, high school students would advise junior high students against applying to schools with different affiliations. “Crips knew not to apply to Robeson,” Siegel says.

As the school’s reputation suffered, fewer students chose to enroll. Siegel explains that in 2010 Robeson was only able to attract fewer than 50 freshmen. The number of enrollees determines the school budget—the smaller the student body, the smaller the budget. Teaching positions at Robeson were simply cut, as the school could no longer afford to offer full-time positions in areas such as health or chemistry. “We lost over 20 teachers,” says English teacher Cecily Humes. There was a misconception that turnover rates were high as a result of teachers leaving voluntarily; many teachers who left had no other choice, she elaborates. Teachers wary of ending up in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool chose to pursue other avenues. The reserve pool is for educators who lost their full-time positions, but have yet to find a permanent position at another school. Teachers in the pool receive salaries and benefits, but “being in the pool is miserable,” says Siegel.

The outflow of teachers and the influx of “over-the-counter” students proved a statistical blow for Robeson. Many of these students attended multiple high schools and they often took much longer to graduate. Some students were 21- and 22-year-olds, explains Humes. Even if they eventually graduated they, however, were not included in the DOE’s evaluation of Robeson’s graduation rate; the department only counts students who graduated within four years. Humes feels that the teachers at Robeson lacked the resources to support these students.

The strain on school resources also took a toll outside the classroom. Even until a few years ago, Robeson boasted a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, which ranged from a debate club to a robotics team. Inadequate finances coupled with overstretched teachers resulted in extracurricular program cuts. The heyday of Robeson’s athletics program is evident in the trophies encased in glass display cabinets lining the school’s hallways. The number of trophies, however, did not guarantee the continuation of athletic victories. Academics were also affected. “We had a lot of AP classes. Now there’s only one standing,” laments senior Justin Thompson

The overall decline was reflected in the school’s progress report. In the 2009-2010 report, Robeson scored a “C” grade. The grade was the school’s third “C” in a row and therefore laid the groundwork for the school’s closure.

Chapter 3: “There is going to be blood in Albany”

On February 1, the DOE voted to close Robeson. Although the department’s decision is final, for the students and teachers it is not over yet. “We’re fighting this,” says English teacher Conrad Boyd. Siegel takes an even stronger—rhetorically militant—stance: “There is going to be blood in Albany.”

Some teachers, parents, and concerned members of the local community are currently reviewing their legal options. Siegel views the closure of Robeson as part of a wider battle—a battle between the city’s educational department and the school.

Students like Nigel Hill have become active campaigners against the closure of the school, meeting with DOE officials and speaking at rallies. For Hill’s classmates, the closure means that they will have no alma mater. “We have nothing to come back to,” explains Justin Thompson, who hopes to pursue a career in criminal justice or business. For Monique Williams, a senior who viewed the school as her second home, the closure is hard to accept because “[Robeson] is a small school with big opportunities.” She viewed the school as a second home and felt a particular affinity to the teachers. She cites the example of one guidance counselor who ran a 5K race to help raise money for students to file college applications.

As Siegel sees it, one of the casualties of the closure has been the legacy of Paul Robeson, a multitalented African American who rose to national fame as a football player and then became a concert singer, actor, and political activist in the early to mid 20th century. Robeson fell out of favor with the federal government for his alleged Communist leanings. His name and reputation were restored following the dissipation of the “Red Scare”. Siegel says the disintegration of her school is a reflection of Robeson’s own life: success followed by rejection and then reacceptance. “We carry the legacy and curse of Robeson,” she says.

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