In New York City, Even School Is Open All Night

Manhattan Comprehensive offers model to help immigrants, older students get a high school degree while working

Sikder Jamil rushes down the blue corridor for the next phase of an already whirlwind day. At 7 p.m., straight from his job at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Queens resident is about to break open his books for the night.

As dusk sets in and many high schoolers turn on the tube, hundreds of older New York City teenagers like Jamil flock into Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School, the nation's first full-time night high school.

Hopping from subway to subway to juggle jobs and families, they go to school when their busy schedules will allow.

Typically between 18 and 21 years old, they're too old, many say, to return to day school. But at "Manhattan Comp" they fit right in. More than half are newly arrived immigrants. Most must work. A third need to take care of children of their own. Typically, they've dropped out of at least two high schools. "Most of our kids are survivors," says Stanley Gordon, a spokesman for the school.

Opened in 1989, Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School has become a model for helping the large number of students whose lives keep them out of conventional schools, educators say.

The first fully accredited public school in the country to offer classes until 11 p.m. and on Sundays and to grant academic diplomas, the model is slowly being repeated across the country, from San Francisco to Minneapolis. Boston has its own version, the Downtown Evening Academy, an accredited high school that operates from 5-to-9 p.m. serving 130 students.

More schools adapt

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says it is high time schools got beyond "the notion that education is somehow finished when you're 18 years old."

"What you see in New York is the first crest of an ever-increasing diversification of public schooling where schools are set up to meet the special needs of one portion of the population. But none of them have opened their hours to the extent that Manhattan Night and Day School has," Mr. Casserly says. "This school has some terrific potential. I'd like to see more of them across the country."

"If we don't adapt, we'll lose the kids, and it'll affect all of us," says Willarene Beasley, director of PM School, a 12 to 5 p.m, 150-student high school in Minneapolis.

Bret Tallman felt compelled to become an adult early on. At 19 years old, he left his North Dakota high school. A few months before his graduation, he hit the road to hitchhike across America.

When he reached the Big Apple, he was tired of being homeless and jobless. Reality hit him: "I found out that I needed my diploma," he says.

For months, he worked at the Ellis Island museum during the day and rushed back to his classes at Manhattan Comp at night. He graduated a year ago. And now he's on his way to Hunter College.

While Bret had chosen to take the road less traveled, Russian-born Max Barbarov hadn't. It was the pressure of life in a new country and the violence that beset his adopted school, FDR High in Brooklyn, he says, that had led him to hang out with the wrong crowd.

When he was expelled for fighting earlier this year, many doors were shut to him. But not those of Manhattan Comp. Since starting there in March, he's been pulling B's in science.

"It's a school for people who want to have a future," says Max, who also works as a furniture mover.

Bret and Max could easily have become statistics swelling the ranks of dropouts - in New York, they make up 18 percent of the 300,000-student high school population.

More older students

Observers point to the turnaround of students like Bret and Max at the night school - and to the fact that there are more 19- 20- and 21-year-olds in New York City high schools than ever before - as evidence that schools must reinvent themselves.

"We'd love people to complete high school in four years," says John Ferrandino, New York's superintendent of high schools, "but that doesn't mean that if they don't, we give up on them."

Manhattan Comp founder and principal Howard Friedman realized that years ago, as he was helping set up alternative schools across the country on a project for the federal Education Department.

"I kept bumping into very worthy young people who wanted to finish high school but who couldn't during normal hours," says Mr. Friedman, who has received the prestigious "Heroes in American Education" award for 1996 from the Reader's Digest Foundation. "They were on their own; they were expected to support themselves or their families."

In 1989, Friedman convinced the city's Board of Education that there existed a "real vacuum" to be filled by a night school.

Patricia Black, an education consultant who was then superintendent of Manhattan high schools, was one of Friedman's most ardent backers. She recently said that Manhattan Comp is the "first school that fits the students and not the other way around."

There were only 25 students when the school opened. And only night classes were offered. Today, classes run on two shifts, four nights a week, and all day on Sunday, with one group of students starting class at 11 a.m. and the other at 5 p.m.

Some say Manhattan Comp offers a novel approach to curbing the dropout rate. Friedman says he's going back to the time when New York's night schools were flourishing, helping a wide variety of Eastern European immigrants to gain a foothold in America.

The building that houses Manhattan Comp was built for immigrant girls at the turn of the century. Like the women attending night classes at the former Hebrew Technical Institute, Manhattan Comp students go to school by choice, helping create an environment where drugs and guns have no place - so far, Friedman says, there's been only one suspension.

Roughly 90 percent of students graduate. Most go on to college. "Approaching kids who are older than 17 should be different," Friedman says. "They should choose to help themselves. "

Private help

Another asset of the school, observers say, is its collaboration with the private sector: Its new, $200,000 library was designed by architects working pro bono and paid for by donors. The magazine "American Lawyer" pays for the student newspaper. Members of a nonprofit group help students with housing and student trips.

Flexibility is the real guiding principle. Diplomas are issued as soon as the students get the necessary credits - no need to wait for a formal graduation ceremony. The school is closed on Fridays so that students can recuperate from their 16-hour work-school schedules. Sundays are play days, when students go on trips and participate in team sports.

Manhattan Comprehensive is for students who lead adult lives.

"That's why the school's so great," says Rosalia Mateo, who works at a department store during the day to support herself. "Sometimes I can't come to school because I can't miss work, and they understand that."

Mr. Jamil, whose home country of Bangladesh is one of 40 represented at the school, adds, "It's a big opportunity. Older people can start here: Everyone's mature-minded."

Sergey Serebremikov says violence made it hard for him to study at the Brooklyn High School he attended until recently. Also, he felt he couldn't learn English because he was relegated to bilingual programs reserved for his fellow Russian citizens.

At Manhattan Comprehensive, he takes classes in English as a Second Language. "I wanted to learn, but I couldn't," Sergey says.

Carmen Estremera bounced from one school to another until she was expelled from a school where, she says, "teachers don't care if you fail or pass."

She chose Manhattan Comp because, unlike other nighttime courses for dropouts that offer graduate equivalency diplomas, it gives her a shot at a real diploma.

"I went through 11 years of high school," says Ms. Estremera, who's been financially independent since she was 17. "I'm not going to give up now."

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