The Death of “Freedom”: Last Days of a Dying School By Emmanuel Felton

I first visited Freedom Academy High School on a dreary March day. The clouds were hanging low and there was a sprinkling of the last of winter’s snow. Despite the gray day, I felt an unusual air of excitement while ascending the stairs to Freedom’s sixth floor lunchroom. It was Spirit Week. It was Nerd Day.

Freedom Academy is in downtown Brooklyn, and inhabits the top three floors of a seven-story former industrial space that also houses a clinic serving patients with psychiatric disabilities. The entire school of about 175 students quickly filled into the eight-table lunchroom, which offers expansive views of Lower Manhattan.

In celebration of Nerd Day, the students were decked out in black rim glasses and short pants, looking not too dissimilar from some of the borough’s hipster class. Lunch was the high point of the day. During lunch, there would be a contest for best nerdwear and the taping of the school’s obligatory Harlem Shake YouTube upload.

The students were excited.

“Shanice, girl you look like a nerd,” one girl yelled excitingly as her friend walked into the cafeteria.

I initially suspected that as a stranger in this small school taking notes in the middle of the lunchroom, I was being overlooked because of all the day’s excitement. Chris, a tenth grader who commutes 45 minutes each way from East New York, later explained that strange observers are not an unusual sight at the school. Most of these visitors, Chris told me were, from the Department of Education.

Spirit Week’s timing, which had been planned back in the fall, was both fortunate and disheartening.

“We are just having fun,” Chris told me. “We don’t have to think about next year right now.”

The students were celebrating a school that had just six days prior been deemed a failure of such a magnitude that it necessitated the school being dismantled by this school year’s end. This story is a partial chronicle of Freedom’s slow demise—why it happened and how it feels to its inhabitants. A school is a community and like the death of any community, its passing has not been easy.

Birth

Originally an alternative school for some of the city’s hardest to educate, Freedom in its current form was born in 2002. Like the reform movement that advocates closing schools based on student scores on state administered standardized tests, the reform movement that opened Freedom was designed to finally close the achievement gap between black and Latino inner-city public school students and their more affluent peers.

During the second half of the 1990s, educators, school administrators, parents, community organizers and philanthropic groups all galvanized around a new idea to transform the urban school landscape in this country. The premise was simple. Large, impersonal inner-city schools were to blame for dismal academic outcomes. In response, these groups, broadly referred to as the small schools movement, advocated for large schools to be replaced by smaller schools, schools that fostered closer bonds between educators, students and parents.

These were the principles of Freedom’s founding, principles that remain ingrained in the culture of Freedom. Each student I talked to used the exact same phrase, “small school,” in defense of their school.

C, B, C, B, F, F

Data show that for many years, Freedom was doing a decent job at its tough mission of graduating low income, minority students. The school was posting above average graduation rates and from 2007 to 2010 received passing marks–C, B, C, B–on the all-important progress reports that are used in closure decisions. But these grades fell off a cliff in 2011. Since then the school has received two Fs.

In 2011, the school’s four-year graduation rate plummeted to 56 percent from 70.7 percent the previous year. That number slid further the next year to 50 percent. These numbers are DOE’s primary justification for closing Freedom. Freedom supporters counter that the school accepts any kid and often needs more than four years to get their students to graduation. They point to Freedom’s six-year graduation rates, which have continuously been above 80 percent.

Freedom students offered several explanations for the precipitous decline: a shrinking staff, the absence of any extracurricular activities, and the school taking in “problem kids.”

Jeremy Del Rio, the founder of 20/20 Vision for Schools, a non-profit group that brings resources into schools under the specter of closure, has been working with Freedom since it got its first F.

“I came to Freedom with promises that DOE would help turnaround the school by bringing in new personnel, funds and programs.” Del Rio said. “None of this has happened. These students come in two or three grade levels behind. They just need more resources.”

Students say that the only new resources at Freedom since last January is the arrival of unpaid advocates like Del Rio and Susanne Veder. Del Rio and Veder have conducted field trips, brought in Broadway actors, and started dance classes. Veder is at the school almost daily working with students and teachers to produce a blog about the students’ experiences at home and in school.

Susanne does her sweeps

Getting off the elevator on the fifth floor at Freedom, I found myself in a dim, almost prison-like, stairwell. In the stairwell, the cinderblock walls are painted gray and there is mesh fencing around the stairs to prevent falls. I walked through the double doors into Freedom, to a hallway of blinding fluorescents, inspirational posters, and bulletin boards. Susanne Veder was already there.

I first met Susanne at an Upper West Side Starbucks in early February. We talked for hours about her history working in corporate America, how she raised her two children, and her role at Freedom. Even after that four-hour chat, I had a hard time picturing exactly what Susanne did at Freedom.

Now Susanne was patrolling the hallway, though it was difficult to determine in what capacity. Not that the hallways were unattended. Freedom’s Principal Alyson Forde, a tough but graceful woman, who often pulls her hair into a tight bun, had long before assumed the difficult job of maintaining order at her school – with the assistance of four unarmed NYPD school safety agents patrolling the halls. Forde liked to handle discipline herself.

She would yell, “Gentlemen, I’m not saying this again, lets get a move on,” to two boys lingering in the hallway during lunchtime. This was not their first warning but it was their last. The young men, still trying to play it cool, picked up their pace and headed upstairs to the cafeteria.

In the hallway, Susanne spotted Duncan, a senior from Bed-Stuy, had been kicked out of class. Duncan was upset. Susanne asked him what happened and calmed him down. She asked him to escort me to the classroom where her always-changing group of students gathered to work on the various projects Susanne had taken it upon herself to launch at the school. Duncan, a lanky and mindful dresser, and I chatted as we climbed the stairs. We talked about our mutual hatred of the SATs and how he and his friends play keyboards on Sundays for their church.

Susanne overhearing our conversation chimed in, “Duncan, you’re a natural aren’t you?”

Duncan responded confidently, “We be killing it.”

“Why didn’t you play at the talent show?” Susanne then asked. “I just thought that everyone would…” Duncan trailed off.

After she spends her mornings taking it upon herself to do damage control, Susanne gathers with students in the afternoon. From this room, she runs her internship program that works with the students to create the blog, plans cultural excursions, and tutors for Regents exams.

Joining the group this day was Susanne’s son, Marshall, Marshall is a videographer and together with his friend, Carol, was working with the students on a short documentary about the end of Freedom.

Duncan was named the film’s “sound guy” and was given the “bootleg boom,” which was essentially a recorder attached to a long pole.

“You’ll get your first video credit,” Marshall told Duncan.

The plan was simple. Susanne, Marshall, and I would ask the students what Freedom meant to them and how they felt about its pending closure.

“The chemistry can be really powerful,” Susanne warned us, “but you never know what you are going to get.”

The students walked into the class in that unmistakably teenage way, appearing both confident and guarded. But their reserve soon melted away. This was still their space, and quickly we just became props in it.

Seeing Duncan’s newfound role as sound guy, the group clapped. “Duncan! I know him,” yelled Tasha from across the room.

Kevin, a 12th grader, and Kurt, an 11th grader, were two Jamaican brothers who looked as if they had planned their matching outfits before coming to school. They are charmers. Kevin walked up to one girl’s desk and asked half-jokingly, “Sontique can I sit next to you?”

The recording went on for two hours. Some of the students there were on free period, others, as the group expanded, arrived from classes from which they had been kicked out.

What did they like about Freedom?

“I came here in grade 10 and I met my best friend here,” said Angelique, a 12th grader. “I know everyone’s name here, even the freshmen.”

“The whole school knows your name within two weeks,” added Akin, an 11th grader.

“I was very antisocial at first because of my accent,” said Kevin, who has a heavier accent than his younger brother. “But I soon made friends here.”

“I’ve learned you can trust people here,” added Sandy.

Then came an exchange between Angelique and William, a Latino 11th grader, one of the school’s few non-black students.

“I’ve felt like an outsider even here,” William said. “I have struggled with depression and am very sensitive.”

“Is that why you make your masks?” Angelique asked tentatively. “Is it because of your depression?”

William smiled and said, “That’s one reason.”

In his free time, William, an aspiring artist, makes the sort of pre-Colombian folk-art masks often worn by Mexican wrestlers. The lead dancer on Nerd Day’s Harlem Shake video was wearing one of them.

The conversation turned to other problems. Sontique, a 12th grader, whose Far Rockaway home was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, was allowed time to vent about the troubles she was having with her grandmother. “She just thinks everything has to go a certain way,” she said.

Marshall then asked the students how they felt about Susanne, his mother.

“The first time she came, we were like who is this white lady? She is going to be gone in less than a month,” said Angelique. “But she really cares. She is on a level with my mother. Everything she says she will do, she does it.”

Finally, Marshall asked how they felt about Freedom’s closure.

“There are problems in every school, but they make it feel like it’s our fault,” Sandy said. She paused. “Maybe we should have worked harder.”

The tone then grew hostile and conspiratorial. Many of the students are longtime residents of Brooklyn, a borough known for its gentrification, and they suspected the invisible hand of developers were at work.

“There is nothing we could have done. They want the building,” said Angelique. “I hear they want to make it into condos, that’s why they are closing us. It’s all because of the Barclays Center.”

“They are going to put in a gym,” said Sontique. “But they never could put one in for us. You want to change this into condos, but you didn’t ever take the time to change it into a school.”

“The whole story is a farce,” added Akin, who wants to be a musician. “I really believe this was a setup. They wanted the building, so they didn’t give us anything, so that we would fail. We use to have a nurse and a Spanish teacher, now we just have the bare minimum.”

“The gym teacher has to bring his own equipment and take us to the park,” Angelique added.

“Some of these teachers try so hard,” said Sontique. The city, she went on, is “just throwing that away. They rush to close us down, but not to help us.”

A small hearing

The Department of Education held a hearing on Freedom’s closure on February 25 in Freedom’s cafeteria. It was clear from its setup that these hearings are usually contentious. Two bulky men were tasked with manning the microphone to keep speakers from going over their two-minute allotment.

Tom Bennet, a representative from the teachers union, insisted on holding his own microphone. When his request was denied he pointed at the window that overlooks Manhattan and yelled, “With this mayor none of us have a voice. The people do not have any kind of power.” Eventually people stopped using the microphone all together, opting to shout at the officials behind the table.

Behind the table sat a team of district and school level officials. David Weiner, a DOE deputy chancellor, and Karen Watts, the superintendent of Brooklyn high schools, were there to argue for closure. They shared the table with four parents on Freedom’s School Leadership Team who argued against closure and Principal Forde who remained silent throughout the meeting. There was also an empty chair. David Goldsmith, the president of the area’s parent oversight committee, refused to take part due to his opposition to all school closures.

Weiner started the meeting by arguing in favor of closure: “We must hold every school to the same standard of excellence because every child deserves it.” He went on. “We will hear some success stories tonight, and we honor those but we must think about the others, they deserve better.”

Weiner pointed to the graduation rate and the results of a parent survey that placed the school in the bottom fifth percentile of city schools in terms of how safe parents think their children are at school. However, nearly 80 percent of students and over 40 percent of the teachers surveyed reported feeling safe at Freedom, though that number plummeted last year.

Weiner then explained that current students who are not graduating this year would be offered spots at high schools in either Brooklyn or in their home borough.

But the long, combative meeting that DOE expected didn’t materialize. The meeting was over in less than 45 minutes.

Not one parent or student in the audience spoke. Instead most of the speakers were anti-closure activists there to protest all closures, not just Freedom’s. They were there to air their grievances against the whole of Mayor Bloomberg’s educational reform policies. “Why are you closing this school?” asked Mariana Russo, the Brooklyn representative on the Citywide Council for High Schools, the city’s parent oversight committee for high schools. “Aren’t we closing big schools to create small schools like this one? With funds and extra support this school will succeed.”

Some of the speakers did know Freedom well. “These kids come in two or three grade levels behind,” argued Jeremy Del Rio. “This is why you have to look at the six year graduation rate which is at 84.5 percent.” Del Rio also complained about the timing of the announcement in January, right before state tests. “Basically what they told the school community right before this big test is, ‘You’re a bunch of failures.’”

“We need to educate children,” Susanne shouted. “We cannot close schools. We cannot just throw children into 60 different schools. It does not work.”

All the while, as speakers insulted the district officials and praised Principal Forde — for her insistence on accepting any child and her hard work to get these children to graduation — Forde sat stoically.

24 schools are sentenced to death

On March 11 the Panel for Educational Policy met to vote on 24 closure proposals. There are 13 voting members of the PEP, five members each appointed by a borough president and eight mayoral appointees. The factions were clear the entire night. The eight mayoral appointees and the Staten Island borough president appointee voted in favor of all DOE’s proposals. The other four borough appointees voted against.

This meeting was largely ceremonial. No school has ever survived a PEP closure vote. But that didn’t stop the meeting from being contentious.

It was a beautiful place to make a last stand; the two-tiered Brooklyn Tech auditorium has gold plated fixtures and an endless amount of ornate molding. It was hard to believe that this public school, less than three miles from Freedom, could be so much grander.

There was a large crowd. Some were there to protest all school closures. Others were there to make last ditch efforts to save their schools. Freedom’s delegation numbered just five: Susanne, Jeremy, Principal Forde, Assistant Principal Collins, and Kathryn Russell, the parent of a 12th grader.

On at least half a dozen occasions, the crowd’s chants halted the meeting’s progress, turning a meeting with pre-determined outcomes into a seven-hour debate.

“Don’t phase ‘em out, fix ‘em up,” shouted the pack on several occasions. “They say shut down, we say fight back.”

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative on the PEP, joined the crowd in calling the nine pro-reform members, “the mayor’s puppets.”

One non-voting student member of the PEP, a high school senior whose school in the Bronx has been on and off the closure list over the years and was just a week before again pulled off the list, asked “How can you learn when you are trying to save your school.”

“These are lives,” he said. “This needs to be about the students.”

Only two closure proposals called for the schools to shutter at the end of this school year, Freedom and M.S. 45, a small East Harlem middle school. The other 22 schools would be phased out, allowing students to graduate from their current schools but then shutting them. DOE argued that Freedom and M.S. 45 served such small populations that phase-outs were not practical.

Public comment began at 9:30 p.m. Susanne spoke just before 10:00 p.m. “I know you are going to close my school,” she said. “But I implore you to keep my kids together.” After her two minutes were up, Susanne walked to the back of the auditorium, where Principal Forde was sitting to talk about next steps, she then left the auditorium and asked one of the NYPD’s school safety agents to walk her to the subway.

After three hours of public comment – the high point being when a group of unassuming elementary schoolchildren accused the panel of “sabotage” and “educational murder” – the panel began voting at 12:45 a.m.

The clerk read out the title of each of the 52 proposals, at times sounding robotic.

“The Proposed Opening and Co-location of a New Elementary School (12X314) with Existing School P.S. 050 Clara Barton (12X050) in Building X050 Beginning in 2013-2014.”

The vote never changed, eight for, four against, but each time the clerk counted the hands and announced: “Eight for, four against, the measure passes.”

Finally at 12:55 a.m., they arrived at Proposal 20: “The Proposed Closure of Freedom Academy High School (13K509) at the End of Year 2012-2013.” The measure was approved by a vote of eight to four.

Schools don’t have life expectancies. As students that fact can at times feel unbearable but eventually offers comfort. You are a part of a community that is ostensibly timeless. But a sense of community is immeasurable and didn’t prove sufficient to save Freedom.

A Post-Mortem

I returned to Freedom, just a few days after the PEP officially closed their school. Marshall, who was still filming, Susanne, and I gathered on the seventh floor and sat down with a group of students.

The conversation was brief that day and focused on what the non-graduating students were worried about.

“I’m really actually very shy,” said a freshman. “I’m really scared. I can’t do another day one [at a new school].”

“I have made at least a handful of close, close friends here. I will make new friends but it’s going to be hard,” added Briana, another freshman. “No one liked me in middle school because how I talked. They said ‘I talked white.’” But Briana does not idealize Freedom. “90 percent of the kids are like 20, they are not supposed to be in high school,” Briana said. “They would be kicked out at any other school. I get that they need to be given second chances, but this is a small school and they are really bringing down our scores and stuff.”

Just as before, the conversation turned accusatory.

“They’re not hearing our voice. They should have come and met with us and gotten our opinion,” said Kevin, the older Jamaican brother.

“They don’t care. I’m angry but I didn’t expect them to come and talk to us,” replied Akin.

“But if you don’t consult with us how do you know what’s really going on?” added Duncan. “It feels like they didn’t want us to be heard.”

What comes after Freedom?

I originally thought that the small school rhetoric was just a talking point in favor of their school. But I have come to see that these students are close, so close that they like and, more importantly, trust one another enough to do wholly uncool things like the Macarena in the middle of the lunchroom.

The students told me that they were afraid of being bullied at their new schools and of losing friends and teachers. One important question, however, did not come up: will we end up at more academically rigorous schools?

Their fate is difficult to determine. As of mid-April, the vast majority of them did not know where they would be attending school next year. Two of the students I met at Freedom told me that they only transferred to Freedom after their original schools were closed. There is no data indicating whether New York students end up at better schools after their school closes, but research done in other cities have shown that students often do not. According to a study done in Chicago, the majority of students from 44 closed schools did not find placement in better schools.

Susanne believes that the DOE will scatter “her” students across the city and as a result some will fall through the cracks and never graduate. She is looking for funding for a program that will allow her to continue to work with former Freedom students.

But in the long-run Freedom’s closure is not just about its current students; it is an attempt by the city to save future students from what it has deemed a failing school.

But this is an abstraction for those directly affected by Freedom’s closure. For them, their community is being eliminated by powerful outsiders who don’t understand their ways and don’t want to.

“It’s like the government is coming in and breaking up your family,” remarked a usually quiet freshman. “Would you want that?”

http://projectwordsworth.com/the-death-of-freedom/

Emmanuel Felton is a New Orleans native and graduate of Emory University. After college, Emmanuel blogged about the first republican-controlled Mississippi Legislative session, did some political campaign work, and spent a year at the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was his experience living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina that initially compelled him to tell others’ stories. He is currently interested in turning mind-numbing governmental policy into compelling, narrative human stories. He lives on Lower East Side, though he spends most of his free time planning a move to Brooklyn.

About Susanne:
Susanne Veder Berger is an author, educator, business executive and mother, who currently lives' on New York City's Upper West Side. Susanne has held a variety of executive positions in the field of marketing for CitiGroup, the U.S. Tennis Association and a number of other companies and organizations. Over the past 4 years, Susanne has been working with inner city high school students in Brooklyn, New York helping them develop self-esteem, prepare for college and secure internships – Susanne Veder Berger's work in education is centered around the implementation of extra curricular activities and the development of student-run journalism programs.