At the entrance of Dewitt Clinton High School on Mosholu Parkway, a queue of stanchions has replaced the maze of metal barricades through which students previously entered the school.
It is one of the many measures that new Principal Santiago Taveras is taking to change the school’s trajectory.
For the past three school years, Dewitt Clinton has received F grades on its overall progress reports from the Department of Education (DOE). In the 2012-2013 school year, the school’s graduation rate was at 54.6 percent, lower than average for New York City high schools, and it received Ds for “school environment” and “student performance.”
The DOE warned the student body back in November 2012 that the school was in danger of closing after its progress reports were released, but a spokesperson for the DOE has since said that the there are no current plans to close its doors.
Mr. Taveras took the helm last August, when the school’s former principal Geraldine Ambrosio retired after 13 years. After working as principal at Banana Kelly High School in the south Bronx, Mr. Taveras went on to serve as deputy chancellor for two years before moving to the private sector, where he worked as the vice president of Cambridge Education.
Since his arrival, Mr. Taveras says he has been working closely with students and faculty to foster a sense of community within the school.
Mr. Taveras said since students outlined their hopes for the year in letters he asked them to write, the educator has sought to listen to their suggestions. Replacing the metal barricades is one of several steps he has taken to decrease what some saw as the school’s previously hostile environment.
The school was placed in the DOE’s Impact program as a dangerous school in 2010, but was removed at the end of that year. Current students and visitors still have to pass through a security check and body scanner to enter the school, but the pathway to the check has a less forbidding appearance now.
“Quite honestly, it was more set up before like a prison, going through guards,” said Al Block, the school’s new public relations chairperson.
The first few months since Mr. Taveras began the process of improving the school have seen an attendance rate that has risen somewhat, with attendance at the end of December up to 80.6 percent from 77.8 percent at the beginning of the month.
The school had stopped holding dances due to incidences of violence and troublemaking in the past. But Mr. Taveras has reinstated monthly dances, limiting attendance to Clinton students to avoid incidents with youths from other schools.
Mr Taveras also said the school tried to dole out fewer suspensions.
“I’m focusing on de-escalating situations and the manner in which the adults approach students about any incident,” he said. “Instead of being more authoritative in the way we approach the students, we are asking for a little bit more [of a] humane type of feel.”
Mr. Taveras is also implementing measures to infuse a positive attitude into day-to-day life at the school and increase the pride students feel in their work. At the beginning of this semester, the school had an award ceremony who students who passed all their first semester classes received a certificate,along with a wristband inscribed with the school’s Latin motto “sine labore nihil,” or, “nothing without work.”
After students pass through security in the morning, televisions with powerpoint presentations hang in the lobby area, showcasing student photos and accomplishments as well as school events. Upgrades to the locker rooms and the school’s gymnasium, in addition to a new computer lab and 25 new Smartboards throughout the school, are part of Mr. Taveras’ plan to improve the school’s infrastructure.
While the effects of the changes won’t be measured until the DOE prepares its 2013-2014 school year progress report, Mr. Taveras is hopeful that the school can turn itself around.
“Yes we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “But we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”