- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

NEW YORK — When the George W. Wingate High School opened in 1955, excited students helped unpack the furniture and baseball legend Jackie Robinson attended the school’s dedication. Trophy cases soon brimmed with accomplishments at the Brooklyn school that would graduate a future U.S. senator.

All that is little more than a memory now. The class of 2006 will be the school’s last.

Wingate, a long-troubled institution, is one of 20 public high schools in New York City being phased out over seven years, a historic spate of closures by officials intent on raising student achievement and staff accountability. For the final class, the mood grows glum when talk turns to carrying school spirit forward.

“There’s no Wingate to come back to,” said 18-year-old Joshanie Walcott.

“We have the building,” another student said.

“That’s not the same,” Joshanie replied.

It’s true that Wingate’s four-story, banjo-shaped structure remains — but today it houses four small secondary schools along with Wingate’s last class of 209 students.

Wingate once had 2,700 students, but every year since 2003, as a class has graduated, its enrollment has shrunk. It had about 150 teachers and staff; now it has 26. Academic programs were cut, and the school now occupies a single floor in the building.

Herb Hogan, Wingate High’s principal, had been on the job just five months in 2002 when he learned he would oversee the school’s final years. He said Wingate High has endured the “stages of grief.”

“I felt they really didn’t give us a chance to turn things around,” Mr. Hogan said. “The staff felt the same way. But we’ve gotten past the blame game.”

In the past three years, the nation’s largest school system has launched nearly 150 “small” schools — fewer than 600 students each — and 36 more are on the way this fall.

They are occupying the facilities of phased-out schools that have been failing for years. Wingate, for example, had a graduation rate of less than 30 percent four years ago and was on a state list of troubled schools.

“You need to create a new culture. People get used to a culture of failure,” said city schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

“I hate to close schools,” he said, “but when a school is a perennial non-performer, I think you have to create options for the kids.”

The view from inside Wingate, though, is of a school fading away. Staff and students are trying to preserve its memory.

Mr. Hogan has talked the other principals in the building into leaving in place the crammed Wingate High trophy case. The old yearbooks, titled “Mosaic,” will stay in the library. The building’s exterior will retain Wingate’s seal and motto: ad astra per ardua — “to the stars through struggle.”

The small schools that replace Wingate — with themes such as human rights, democracy and public service — will compete in athletics using the old red-and-white colors and nickname, the Generals. (The school’s namesake, Gen. George Wood Wingate, was a Civil War veteran.)

But Wingate High students and alumni reject the notion that a campus of different schools, which generally have little to do with one another, is the same as one, unified Wingate High School.

The staff has tried to keep up the last class morale.

Mr. Hogan let Senior Week — which has silly features such as “Pajama Day” — last two weeks instead of one. Students on the honor roll will be treated to Broadway plays.

This year’s students will have a senior trip and a prom like any other senior class. The yearbook’s cover will be a collage of previous Mosaic covers.

But the impending closure also has brought painful differences from past years.

Student Rosa Aponte noted that during her senior year, when students usually get access to the broadest range of courses, Wingate has slashed many programs. The aviation program is gone, and so are programs in nursing, construction and business.

“They took all that from us,” she said.

Adding to the bitterness is a certain jealousy toward the other schools; they get the new chairs, new tables, new everything.

When Mr. Hogan recently visited a class, students complained that children from other schools tromped through Wingate hallways, even though Wingate students aren’t allowed in the other schools’ areas.

The possessiveness isn’t limited to students. Take the Woolf Colvin scholarship, named for Wingate’s first principal. Mr. Colvin stipulated that only interest on his original $5,000 donation be used for scholarships. But Mr. Hogan has been trying to find Colvin’s relatives to get permission to spend the principal on a last round of scholarships for Wingate students.

Asked whether he could simply leave the scholarships for the schools left behind, Mr. Hogan grins sheepishly and says, “Yes … but I don’t want to do that.”

As Wingate has grown smaller, its faculty, staff and students said there is more camaraderie, more focus. Mr. Hogan said academic achievement, including the graduation rate, is up.

Many of Wingate High’s staffers are sympathetic to the reasoning behind creating smaller schools, despite the uncertainty it has created.

“It went from ‘Wow, I’m so busy’ to ‘Wow, I’m comfortable,’ to ‘Wow, I’m going out of existence,’ ” longtime math teacher Ewell Isaac said. “It’s sort of like life.”

The closure is “very sad,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who is among Wingate’s famous graduates.

Some staffers, such as Mr. Hogan, may retire. Others are looking for jobs.

Mr. Hogan is planning a party for people with Wingate connections, but the real farewell will come during graduation, set for June 27.

And then Wingate High School will be gone.

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