November 10, 2011
For Principal Fred Walsh, every student counts.
That’s because his school enrolls fewer students than the Department of Education says it should.
With this in mind, Walsh tries to begin each school day by shaking hands with each student who walks through the doors of the Brooklyn School for International Studies, and, ideally, end them shaking hands with prospective parents from Cobble Hill’s elementary schools. In addition to handshakes, Walsh shares with local parents promises of the school’s growing elective programs in journalism and culinary arts and, for the first time this fall, polished brochures touting those programs.
Walsh says his dogged efforts to sell International Studies to Brooklyn families are necessary but also distracting from the task of running a school for fewer than 500 students. They highlight an unintended side effect of the Bloomberg administration’s “system of schools” in which high school and many middle school students select their schools: Few schools are many students’ first choice. And when too few students enroll, schools end up being saddled with students who made no choice at all.
That’s the situation that Walsh is trying to head off. At a time when most local parents are choosing to send their children elsewhere, Walsh is working hard to bring attention to his mid-performing neighborhood school. His attempts have ranged from the ambitious (building a state-of-the-art kitchen) to the bluntly pragmatic (hiring a public relations consultant).
But competition over students and Walsh’s old under-the-radar approach has caused the school’s enrollment to yo-yo and, over time, decline by nearly 10 percent since it opened with 512 students in 2004. The decline signalled trouble to the DOE, and opened the doors to increasing numbers of high-needs students.
And the small boost in enrollment the school saw last year—from a low of 445 to 481—might be too little too late: Next year the school is likely to be joined by a new Success Academy charter school in the squat, four-story building on Baltic Street it already shares with two other schools.
Last month the Department of Education identified the Brownstone Brooklyn building as the prime site for the charter school because both International Studies and the School for Global Studies, the school upstairs, have many more open seats than students in grades 6 through 12 to fill them. That means, the DOE says, that there is room in the building to spare.
Before the announcement, Walsh said he worried that both schools would have to increase class sizes and cut programs once they start sharing space with the charter school, which would open with 190 kindergarteners and first-graders next fall and slowly grow into a full-sized elementary school after that.
And even though International did not make the city’s list of potential closures this year, community members say they are worried that the DOE could close or move it in the future.
The only way to escape the pressure, Walsh said, is to raise International Studies’ profile.
That could be a challenge. International Studies does not routinely send its students to Europe or California, as is done at selective M.S. 51, or have a “Varsity”-level rock band that practices on campus long past the last bell, like M.S. 88 does, or boast straight A’s on the school progress reports. Many area families have never heard of his school, Walsh said, or they confuse it with the School for Global Studies, which developed a negative reputation after a several students and a former principal were arrested for various offenses in 2006 and 2008. Global Studies is now undergoing federally funded “transformation,” an improvement strategy reserved for the most struggling schools.
International Studies’ public face became even more precarious this fall when the DOE withheld the school’s progress report card, citing concerns with the data.
To combat the image concerns, Walsh has funneled resources into elective courses in journalism and cooking and hired a publicist to tailor the school’s outreach to area families — a hire he defends, despite the harsh criticism he received for it in the New York Post in September.
“We have to be strategic about marketing the school. Right now is peak marketing season. We’re getting our chefs out there in their chef coats at the school fair and getting articles written about us in the local papers,” he said.
Walsh said he also tried to change the name of the school but ran into bureaucratic obstacles.
“Our name isn’t selling culinary,” he said. “The neighborhood can’t figure us out, and putting a school upstairs with almost an identical name is a really silly planning move. To me, it’s either change our name, or be better about getting the word out about the school.”
Walsh, who has been principal for eight years, began trying to distinguish his school from the pack in 2005, when he started lobbying local politicians and DOE officials to renovate the school’s basement into a culinary school-quality kitchen. Students once cooked meals on hot plates under science teacher Mayra Valdes’s supervision after school. But Walsh, who briefly worked in a restaurant after high school and believes teenagers can learn a great deal from taking on the responsibilities of a chef and “working with their hands,” wanted to offer a two-year elective program. Since the $1.5 million kitchen was finished in 2010, International Studies has hired a second culinary arts teacher and begun pursing state certification for the program, which now enrolls close to 200 of the school’s 350 high school students.
Students who graduate from the program will be prepared to work entry-level jobs and internships in the restaurant industry, and to attend post-secondary culinary school, according to Sean Ahern, one of the culinary instructors.
“The idea is to attract more students who have an interest in middle school,” he said. “A lot of skills are offered in a program like this. There’s reading, writing, math, working in groups, trouble-shooting. It offers excellent project-based learning because they have to get up and engage with their peers, and produce things.”
Last month the classes submitted two Latin American-themed soups in an annual Brooklyn cooking competition, called the Soup Crawl on Smith Street: Dominican Plantain Soup and Mexican Chicken Soup.
Walsh said opportunities like the local competition make for good culinary lessons, and “good PR.”
“What we do right here is very difficult to quantify,” he said. “And it behooves us, frankly, because we want to draw the community into our school.”
Mercedes Camacho, a 12th-grader from Bushwick who has been at the school for a year, said the school’s “homey” feel has kept her there, even though it wasn’t her first choice to attend. The high school’s student body is split between students who are carried over from the middle school, students from nearby District 13, and last-minute enrollees who recently moved to New York City.
“They say they stayed because they feel comfortable here, with the teachers,” she said. It’s like a home to them. I like the fact that this is a small school and you get to know everybody.”
Mercedes was placed in the school after visiting the DOE’s Brooklyn enrollment center in the summer before school started. Her first choice was Williamsburg Preparatory High School, she said, but it did not have a seat available.
Many schools that do not attract enough students to fill their open seats through the regular high school admissions process are sent numbers of “over-the-counter” students in the first weeks of school. Many of those students are returning to high school after taking a year off, or are recent immigrants to the country or city.
Walsh said the school is equipped to handle the latecomers, but he would prefer it if more students ranked the school on their high school application.
“With school choice comes the implication that schools are competing for the same students. A school has to make a more conscientious effort to promote its programs, make sure it is noticed by the community, celebrated and publicized,” he said. “You have to be smarter about all of that.”