Elite tech school joins ‘F’ school in Soho

By Casey Samulski

Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School has a new neighbor. The NYCiSchool has started its first school year and operates in the same building at Broome St. and Sixth Ave.

The iSchool is a “high school for the 21st century,” according to its principal, Alissa Berger. In addition to learning through real-world problem-solving for businesses and professionals, the iSchool offers its curriculum through a variety of online courses that are taught and expanded upon in classrooms. With the support of Cisco Systems — a leading supplier of networking equipment and network management for the Internet — the iSchool offers an alternative to traditional teaching methods.

The school is still small, with roughly 100 students, all freshmen, though there are plans to scale the school up to between 350 to 500 students while Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School scales down from its current 825 students.

A year ago, when the Department of Education instituted its new report card system of evaluating school performance, Chelsea received an “F,” and one of the lowest scores in the city — 20.88 — qualifying it for potential closing. At the time, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said there would be changes in about 15 of the schools that garnered an “F.” And down the line, if those schools do not improve, there would be further changes or closings, Klein said at the time. The second round of high school report cards is due to be released soon.

Brian Rosenbloom, the new principal for Chelsea, envisions the two schools sharing sports teams, clubs and more as the new school begins to develop. It’s a goal he and Berger have agreed upon. Both principals sounded optimistic about inter-school participation and both have known each other for several years.

Chelsea is an open-enrollment school, available to any student in the city interested in attending. In contrast, the iSchool is a screened school, requiring that students score 85 or higher on their statewide standardized exams to be accepted. While the iSchool uses technology to enhance the learning environment for a traditional curriculum, Chelsea teaches technology as a designated Career and Technical Education School, offering profession-oriented components in conjunction with standard curriculum. Chelsea is one of 26 C.T.E. schools operating in the city, their total enrollment accounting for approximately 30,000 students.

Some might say “career and technical education” is just a euphemism for “vocational,” something of a dreaded term for its association with underachieving students and underperforming schools. Melanie Meyers, a Department of Education spokesperson, says otherwise.

“We’re not closing any doors; we’re opening additional ones,” she explained. And all students in C.T.E. schools are still held to the Regents curriculum, the standard for all graduating seniors in the city, she noted.

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, sees things a bit differently.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” he said.

He went on to describe a long-running history of crime and vandalism associated with Chelsea High School and its students in the neighborhood. Sweeney described businesses harassed and stolen from and even some violent crime, like the severe beating of a Parks Department employee several years ago. He described the situation in the school as something akin to the 1950s film “Blackboard Jungle” and “the milieu of an academic establishment that doesn’t control its students.” Sweeney isn’t the only one to hold this opinion.

In a 2007-’08 survey by D.O.E., 73 percent of teachers at Chelsea disagreed — 43 percent of those strongly — with the statement “Order and discipline are maintained at my school.” This isn’t a new development according to Sweeney, who described Chelsea as “always kind of a tough school, even when it was more local.” Sweeney thinks that both the police and the school’s previous administration have done a poor job in making sure the surrounding community is safe when students are out of class. The Soho activist called the measures taken “inadequate” and said dialogue between the school and the community over these issues has been nearly nonexistent.

However, Chelsea’s principal Rosen-bloom is brand new, having started this July. He said that he came specifically to address the issues facing Chelsea High School.

“It’s a failing school and it’s underdeveloped,” he said. “I’m here to change that.” After founding the South Bronx Preparatory School, he’s come to Chelsea, he said, to “change the entire culture of the school.”

Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, cited different concerns about the schools, particularly that of overcrowding.

“This is a chronic issue already in the Village and across School District 2,” he explained, but went on to say the community board understands the need for additional schools. This lack of school buildings has prompted the community’s initiatives for new schools at 75 Morton St., Pier 40 and the Foundling Hospital on Sixth Ave. in Chelsea. All of this, Hoylman said, “points to a chronic need for new school space on the West Side of Manhattan.”

Berger, the iSchool principal, said the building doesn’t feel overcrowded to her, but added, “We need to be very thoughtful as we grow and Chelsea shrinks.” Having been principal of a shared-space building before, she sounded confident that, going forward, they could avoid overcrowding of either school.

As for Chelsea’s ongoing struggles, a new school to work with and a new principal may mark the beginning of a new direction. Sweeney admitted that so far this year there haven’t been any student-related incidents in the neighborhood. And Berger reiterated that Cisco Systems is committed to supporting “the entire building” and to being involved with both schools.

For now, though, the iSchool is still something of a mysterious next-door neighbor. Students from Chelsea High School interviewed this week seemed to know little about the new school except that it had taken over the fifth floor and had converted gym space into an office.

Berger seemed to think Chelsea’s problems were more indicative of a case of too many students, rather than anything like Sweeney’s tough assessment, something that would change as the iSchool grows in proportion to Chelsea’s shrinking.

“Chelsea kids get a bad rep,” perhaps a little unfairly, Berger said, describing them as “calm” and “very polite.”

It remains to be seen whether splitting enrollments will really alleviate the larger issues at hand, but the iSchool appears to be offering some innovative ideas and maybe even a solution for problems that have dogged high schools all the way back to the 1950s. It could be that the computer revolution will mark an end to the era of the “blackboard jungle.”