The Rise and Fall of a North Manhattan Middle School

Seventh-grader Abel Popin heads for the heights on the first day of school.

Seventh-grader Abel Popin heads for the heights on the first day of school.

BY DEREK SIMONS

When the Washington Heights Middle School “Minerva” 321 gained its full independence and own principal in 2004, the first class of sixth-graders enrolled. Two years later, 380 students across grades six through eight were studying the scholastic basics and specializing in law and journalism.

But New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) gave a “thumbs down” to the Minerva experiment last year. Today is the first day of its last two years of existence.

This year there is no sixth grade; next year, there will be no seventh. In DOE parlance, it is being “phased out.” No new students are being accepted and, when those currently enrolled finish eighth grade, the school’s facilities will be absorbed by two other nearby schools.

Principal Pamela Russell-Glover, a graduate of the New York Leadership Academy program for principals, seemed frustrated by the decision.

“For one bad year?’ she said. “They should look at what we faced last year.”
She was referring to the annual grades the city assigns each school based on environment, performance and progress.

Minerva fell from a “B” in 2006-07 to a “D” in 2007-08. Attendance was down, teacher turnover was high and discipline problems increased. The mainly Dominican Spanish-speaking student body was well below city averages, according to education department statistics.

Last year, the school bounced back and recorded 100 percent improvement on its goals, but it was too late. After the “D” was assigned, no more cumulative school grades were assigned to Minerva.
History teacher Cassandra Schriffen said many students are very recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic and the tests don’t reflect this reality.

“The mayor [Bloomberg] doesn’t understand what we deal with,” she said.
On this first day of school, out of a dozen students interviewed in the yard, half spoke only rudimentary English.

Seventh-grader Steven Pimentel, 13, a Dominican immigrant, has been here a year and is still on shaky linguistic terrain.
“When I came to the city I had no English,” he said. “They didn’t put me in a bilingual class so I didn’t get to sit the state exam.”

The kids are in class, and the halls are deserted.

The kids are in class, and the halls are deserted.

Though some Minerva teachers have tried to encourage the students to dream big, obstacles remain. Math and science teacher Steven Jackson, wanting to encourage journalism, has helped students produce a newspaper in two out of the last three years. But right next to the cafeteria there’s a fully-equipped TV studio with cameras, editing room and director’s booth sitting dormant.
The students haven’t used it in the last 12 months.
“When they cut our funding, we had no one left who knew how operate the equipment,” Russell said.

Photos – Derek Simons

Leave a Reply