When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took his first oath of office in January 2002, the students who are slated to graduate this June were, plainly, clueless: As first-graders, they had no idea that they would become guinea pigs for wholesale education reform – unwitting participants and, supporters say, beneficiaries of the "education mayor's" protracted experiment in urban education. It's fair to say, their parents didn't know, either. Next June, as the mayor enters the final stages of his third and last term, most of these students will graduate from high school – some ready for college, but most not.

Within a few seasons of Bloomberg taking control of the city and its schools, the members of the class of 2013 would become some of New York City's earliest early-testers—on the ground as Bloomberg and his long-serving Chancellor, Joel Klein, installed standardized testing in grades 3 through 8. Today, these teens are also the first crop to have encountered DOE's policy prohibiting social promotion – that long-critiqued but widely practiced policy of passing of students up the grades, whether or not sufficient academic progress had been made. They are the first to go to schools that have been graded for performance – and shuttered for "failure" or inadequate gains. They are the first generation to be rewarded financially, in some districts, for taking advanced-level work, like AP classes in high schools – and the first to see those incentives removed, when the experts who'd pushed for the practice discovered it didn't work.

Many went to small, themed high schools that, in a signature Bloomberg policy, were crafted to replace large "failing" high schools. Their schooling was overseen first by district superintendents, then by regional administrators, then by "school support organizations" and finally by a set of networks—the administrative infrastructure that accompanied Klein's near-continuous revampings of the school system.

No group of students has been shaped as directly by Bloomberg's time in office.

Over the current academic year, City Limits will follow a few members of the class of 2013, from different kinds of schools in different neighborhoods, to see how this group of young people navigates the final hurdles of their public school careers, and to look back with them on how a mayor's reform agenda looked from a student's desk. Meet the Class of 2013: Bloomberg's Babies, nearly all grown up–and some, at least, going off to college and launching their lives.

A second start

Shane Thompson is a 17-year-old senior at the High School for Public Service: Heroes of Tomorrow, on the Wingate Campus in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.   

Shane lives in Crown Heights and went to public middle and elementary school there. He wants to be an "aero-engineer," he says, "someone who builds planes." To advance his dream, he first chose to attend Transit Tech High School in East New York.   

New York public school students are placed at their high school through a system called school choice—a complicated process, modeled on med school matches, that pairs eligible students with city schools .

Shane found the high-school choice process maddening, remembering it as "a mad scramble." All he remembers from 8th grade is the guidance counselor's calendar-consciousness. "She said, make sure you do this by this time, make sure you do this by this other time – but she didn't stress that this is a long-term decision and you have to be sure" that it's right. He did not have strong support from home to navigate the process and did not complete some of the most basic recommendations provided by DOE to help students make decisions about school. For instance, he didn't visit Transit Tech, which he put first on his school list, or other schools before applying.

Accepted at Transit Tech for 9th grade, Shane enrolled. He says it was awful: After a 90-minute commute involving a bus and a subway ride – "That was a looooong trek," he recalls now – the atmosphere at the big school was "hectic." The classrooms were packed, Shane says. "I didn't think I could learn there. The students were wild. It was not for me."
High school choice systems created by DOE allow students to apply for a transfer – in 10th grade (exceptions are made for medical and safety transfers, and for excessive commutes, which DOE calculates via HopStop). Transfer paperwork is submitted in fall, along with 8th graders high-school applications – but the actual transfer doesn't happen until the next academic year.

By the fall of 2008, when Shane and his classmates were ready to apply to high school, DOE had shuttered large high schools in nearly every borough, essentially eliminating the neighborhood (or "zoned" high school option) for children in most precincts of the city, including the majority of districts in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. Wingate High School in Crown Heights was one of the first schools DOE shut down, and is now described as a one-building campus hosting multiple schools.

So, without a zoned school that could accept him "over the counter" – as a student enrolling once the school year began – Shane remained at Transit Tech for the full 9th grade year. It's not clear how his academic progress was affected by his placement, and Shane was behind his peers at HSPS: Heroes of Tomorrow when he arrived in 10th grade, but he has been thriving there ever since.

"I love it here," he said in September. "Everyone's in a nice mood. The teachers here are friendly and down to earth; they're really here to help us when we have a problem." Shane appreciated one teacher's patience with a missed deadline – and the school's practice of requiring "mastery" projects to demonstrate knowledge of specific subject areas, like the presentation he gave last year in Spanish. "I was really nervous, but I got up and it just flowed," he said. "I got a perfect score, 100 percent," still basking in the moment.

"To succeed you need dedication. You have to have focus," Shane said. "It's all up to you."

Five schools currently share the Wingate building, each in a dedicated wing or floor, although certain resources, like the school library and sports teams are meant to be pooled, building-wide. HSPS: Heroes of Tomorrow is one of the Bloomberg administration's pioneering small high schools – dozens of new schools carved into the buildings of older, now-shuttered community high schools, many with special themes that were, in Bloomberg's first term, deeply funded by the William and Melinda Gates foundation.