Business district, security help shape up school


By Lawrence Lerner

Washington Irving High School is arresting to even the most casual observer. Located two blocks east of Union Square, on Irving Place between 17th and 18th Sts. in the genteel Gramercy Park neighborhood, the massive turn-of-the-century structure beckons you with its sheer scale and austere bust of its namesake on the sidewalk outside.

Inside, the grand foyer evokes a stately elegance, with sweeping staircases, colorful oil-painted murals and dark, detailed woodwork. On a recent afternoon, a tranquility becoming the Met hung in the air as happy-go-lucky students made their way through this remarkable scene.

One would never imagine that just three short years ago, Washington Irving was anything but tranquil, emblematic as it was of all that was wrong with New York public schools — an overcrowded hotbed of gang violence and the site of infamous episodes, like the vending machine thrown down a stairwell by unruly students, or the metal chair hurled out a sixth-floor window, knocking a pregnant woman unconscious below.

At the school’s entrance, the metal detectors and scanners from those days still remain, but Washington Irving is a very different school now, turned around by a combination of factors, including earlier restructuring inside Washington Irving, a longstanding commitment to the school made by local area businesses and organizations, and stricter security measures put in place by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

The result is a school that the students, staff and neighborhood can take pride in.

“We’ve worked hard to get the school to this place,” said Principal Denise DiCarlo. “We’re moving nicely, though it’s definitely still a work in progress. Every class is not where we want it to be just yet, but we’re starting to see positive change.”

Back in the early 1990s, prior to DiCarlo’s tenure, administrators began splitting up Washington Irving into “houses,” or semiautonomous small learning communities centered on specific career themes, such as law and public service, science, information technology, visual and performing arts, business, teaching and health professions — and an international baccalaureate diploma program.

According to Julie Bingay, who has been with the school 13 years and is now assistant principal for the info-tech house, this process of subdivision began shrinking the 2,500-student school to manageable proportions and “motivated big changes. Now that every house had its own A.P. and disciplinary dean, we could begin to ask, ‘How do we help students individually and provide the services they need?’ ” she said.

Yet, all was still not well back then. Sensing neighborhood discontent in 1994, the 14th St. Local Development Corporation, an arm of the Union Square Partnership business improvement district, established a relationship with Washington Irving High School.

According to Christina Brown, the partnership’s deputy director, area residents decried the school at the time because “students from all five boroughs were hanging around the neighborhood, getting rowdy and out of hand,” she said.

The majority of Washington Irving students are Latino and African-American who travel long distances to the school from neighborhoods across the city. Three-quarters of the kids are from low-income families and are eligible for free lunch. English is a second language for more than a quarter of the students.

“The community felt disconnected from the school, and there was talk of closing it,” said Brown. “But the L.D.C. came in and said, ‘Wait a minute. Why not partner with the school and try to save it?’ ” she said.

Twelve years later, the public-private partnership has all the makings of a joint venture. The L.D.C. maintains an office in the school’s lobby staffed by five full-time employees and a handful of work-study undergrads from New School University, who offer assistance with college research, scholarship applications and résumé writing. Also in the L.D.C. office is a resource library and computer lab.

The office also serves as the nerve center for the smorgasbord of programs the L.D.C. runs for the students, including tutoring, SAT prep classes, after-school programs, a mentoring initiative, internship and summer job programs, an annual Success Day — where kids connect with community professionals to learn about individual career paths — and a youth advisory program run by New York University social work students that works with at-risk students.

All of this is executed by some 40 part-time staff and volunteers from nearby businesses and organizations, such as the Con Edison engineers who tutor math during their lunchtime, or the lawyers from Cleary, Gottleib, Steen & Hamilton who run the 13-week SAT prep course. Both companies, along with many others such as North Fork Bank, the Coffee Shop and the Vineyard Theatre just to name a few, take on student interns and summer hires, put on college fairs and do other programming when possible.

More than 1,300 Washington Irving students are involved with L.D.C. programs annually.

One of these students, senior Roselaine Louis of Canarsie, Brooklyn, says the L.D.C. keeps her connected to the outside world.

“I’ve gone on tours of area colleges and done summer enrichment programs,” she said. The L.D.C. was also instrumental in starting the after-school James Joyce club Louis attended this spring.

As good as all of this sounds, however, just three years ago, the school was overshadowed by another round of misgivings on the part of area residents — as well as students and their parents, who protested outside the school in December 2003, demanding relief from overcrowding and creation of safer conditions inside.

The crisis erupted after a spate of violent incidents at high schools and middle schools throughout the city, including Washington Irving, which had absorbed more than 600 extra students from other Manhattan schools that were downsized, students who did not choose to be there and whose presence was ultimately disruptive.

Mayor Bloomberg took the blame for failing to create safe schools citywide, and in January 2004, he and Schools Chancellor Klein included Washington Irving on the original list of the city’s 12 “impact schools.” Police presence was doubled, and scanners and metal detectors at the entrance became incongruous fixtures in the 104-year-old school’s genteel lobby.

“As a principal, you feel like it’s personal, that you’re trying hard and all of sudden there’s all these protests. And how do you make it better?” said DiCarlo. “We had a plan for what we wanted to do with security, but we never had the resources for it — until we hit bottom and got on the impact list,” she said. “I see a big change in the tone of the school now, which is beautiful. The structure was needed.”

Neighborhood residents and business owners seem to agree. Gail Fox, co-president of the Union Square Community Coalition, says that things have calmed down considerably outside the school.

“I think the 13th Precinct’s handling of the truancy problem also had something to do with it,” she said.

O. Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club, who has worked with Washington Irving students since 1995 by holding exhibits of their work, bringing guest artists into their classes and booking graduation speakers, has seen a profound shift.

“The changes are evident, and I adore the students,” he said. “I’m looking for the next National Arts Club president to come from Washington Irving High School.”

That is not to say the school faces no challenges. Enrollment stands at 2,609, about 300 above the school’s traditional capacity. The graduation rate hovers around the city average, at 55 percent. Average attendance last year was just under 74 percent, eight points short of the city average. And low Regents scores have put the school in “corrective action” status with the Department of Education.

But performance is improving and there is reason to be hopeful, according to DiCarlo.

“Things are just starting to pop academically,” she said. “It’s not exactly where we want it to be — I’d love to see 20 percent higher graduation rates. But we’ll get there.”

For senior Louis, who has witnessed the seismic shift at Washington Irving during the last four years, the proof is in the level of personal safety she feels daily, the relationships she’s developed with her teachers and the opportunities afforded by the after-school programs.

“This school was scary back when I was a freshman,” she said. “The halls were crowded and there were mad fights almost every day. Teachers did not have control of their classrooms,” she said. “Now class sizes are smaller, and I get much more individual attention. Teachers look out for you, and between that, the internships and the after-school stuff, students really know why they’re here.”

Principal Denise DiCarlo says she’s seeing positive change at the high school.