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My Failing School

My Failing School

The school’s June party was a boat ride on New York City’s East River. Elsie danced with the principal. Everyone thought that was funny because they’d been fighting all year. He wanted her out of the school and she wanted to stay. Elsie and I had been at this school almost 20 years, through seven principals. The city declared our school a failure, but a battle of statistics had postponed our closing.

When a principal is new, he or she can’t put a foot down and say no to overcrowding, and we were always kept in fresh supply of new principals. Each spring we’d fill to the max under the usual application process: 8th graders list 12 high schools anywhere in the five boroughs of New York City. At least half our students said they had never listed us as a choice but had been simply ordered to attend. This gave our school its aura of banishment. The other half of our students were sent by their parents out of dispirited neighborhoods to Manhattan, the promised island.

In the fall, a politically unconnected principal has to say yes and take all the “over-the-counters,” those who just moved here or didn't receive any placement at all from the city. Ours is a large building. We have fashioned our own small schools within it, without the department of education’s blessing, so we are treated like the last of the large-school dinosaurs. Sometimes a principal has breezed through with sights set on greater heights in the education mill. That might produce the political favor of taking all the kids from a school closed by a shooting.

It seemed youthful spontaneity had caused Elsie to jump up and dance with the principal. She laughed and joked with her enemy, and I imagine there was the exertion of forgiveness. Everyone said she’d danced up a sweat. The gossip and snickering over a dancing pair of adversaries continued after she left the dance floor. People blamed the principal for driving the school into the ground.

I’ve seen the school go up and down. Each down took us lower, but I was always optimistic. We created small schools to prevent an outside hand from reaching in to throttle us. An old friend took the post of English chair; when we got rid of departments, as all small schools must do, he became our small-school principal. We’d had a strong English department so we rallied behind his integrity and started a writing school. We built it, we planned it, we worked later than our usual late every day. I stopped my swimming routine and put on weight, came home late to my own children, but we churned past the planning stage, into our initial year and beyond.

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