Almost-Closed 'Graphics' High School Stresses Job-Training Program

By Mathew Katz on December 13, 2011 4:43pm 

HARLEM — After narrowly avoiding closure by the Department of Education last week, students and advocates at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts now want to show the value in the school's career-based education program.

The school, known affectionately as 'Graphics' to students and staff, was one of four given an 'F' grade on a school progress report released by the Department of Education in October. Last week, the department announced it would be closing several failing schools, but Graphics managed to stay off the list. Now, the school wants to prove its worth so it can get off the chopping block permanently.

To that end, the school is publicizing its students' work for different companies around the city, including Harlem-based AIDS nonprofit FACES NY, where several students regularly design ads, produce videos, and run the nonprofit's youth outreach programs.

Three students spent the summer working at FACES NY and created a YouTube video aimed to educate teens about HIV and AIDS. They now run a Facebook group and other social media sites aimed at bringing AIDS awareness to their peers, in addition to helping design some of the organization's magazine ads.

"This is the only school that does that," said Kianne Martinez, 16, who was drawn to the school because of its four-year photography program. "If we had closed, there would be a lot of 14-year-olds who wanted to learn photography like that who couldn't."

The school at 439 W. 49th St. got a new principal, Brendan Lyons, in September. Lyons has said he's focusing on improving Graphics' job-training programs, and believes that will help improve the school's reputation.

The Career/Technical education school requires students to complete 12 extra credits in a career-focused skill in order to graduate. On top of training them in practical skills like graphic design and video production, the school sends dozens of students to paid work placements where they can learn on-the-job skills and graduate with a portfolio of work.

Graphics also offers professional-level certification to students in design and editing programs like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro.

"This is the future. We know now our students aren't college ready or career ready," said Mary Conway-Spiegel, founder of the Partnership For Student Advocacy, which helps the city's at-risk school survive. "Graphics, despite its 'F', is doing what needs to be done, so students can do a career and college."

The work placements net the students credits and cash: each of them makes $7.25 an hour, which added up in the summer, when they were all working 30 hours a week. Now that school's back in session, they can bill for roughly 10 hours a week.

"Eventually, I'm gonna have to go to college and work at the same time," said 17-year-old senior  Lissy Alcantara of Washington Heights. "So I'm learning it now."

The school's graduation rate has raised significantly in recent years, but not enough to get it a passing grade. Staff and advocates say the Department of Education looks upon CTE-based schools like Graphics unfairly, and don't take into consideration the extra credits and workload students have to take in order to learn practical job skills.

"Our students can compete with anybody," said Jack Kott, who runs the work-based learning program at the school.

Kott, who used to own a graphics company and hired Graphics students, said that of 32 seniors who graduated from the CTE program in 2011, 29 went on to college. To help pay for college, many of them work part-time jobs in the fields they trained in, Kott said.

Aziza Ramsay, 16, commutes three hours a day to the school from Far Rockaway, and chose Graphics specifically for its video and design programs.

"If they school closed down, I'd have to go back to Far Rockaway, to people who don't care," she said.

"That's what doesn't get said about schools with a 'D' grade or an 'F' grade," said Conway-Spiegel. "There are still students who choose these schools."

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