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.

Behind the creation of small schools, DOE officials say, was the thinking that students who struggled in large, comprehensive schools (where sinking grad rates resulted from low academic expectations, poor attendance, flabby teaching and administrative bloat) would find strong, individualized support and success in small high schools of about 400 to 600 students total. Small schools would be able to focus on bringing sub-par students up to proficiency, the small-school architects maintained.

But the school size itself limits what a school can offer, in terms of advanced coursework, specialized electives, APs, clubs and teams. Without a critical mass of students, it can be impossible to support specialized classes – although exceptions occur, as when Heroes of Tomorrow principal Ben Shuldiner taught calculus last year, to two students. "They deserved it," he told City Limits. "So I taught them."

That said, Shane only has four classes this year, because he's finished the school's social studies curriculum and Spanish offerings. He has one AP (Biology) and is taking Trig, which the school offers (in combination with Algebra II) over two, three or four semesters, depending on the student ability. The whole senior class is working on SAT prep in their English classes this semester, Shane reports – seniors will retake the crucial exam in November – and drafting college-application essays.

Shane hopes to attend Syracuse University or Penn State, although his mom's been clear that economics will drive his college decision, at least in part. "I hear it can be expensive staying on campus," he said, "so I might apply to some CUNYs, too."

Aiming high

If soft-spoken Shane is a boy who could float under the administration's radar in a larger, less-attentive school, his classmate Kadheem McLeod is a natural star: School president, varsity wrestler, self-proclaimed triple threat (singing, dancing and acting) and general life enthusiast, crowned by a shock of curls and a single streak of blonde. ("I was trying to get gray!" he said, "but no one sells gray hair dye.")

Kadheem has benefited enormously from his small high school's careful, close attention. "Not to diss other schools, but this is one of the best in the city," he told City Limits. Kadheem was tapped to apply for a prestigious, 11-month leadership program, which led to his participation in the Mayor's youth leadership council and the chance to be among a small panel of students who made formal presentations to the mayor. "I learned I do have a voice," he says, through that program and his school. He's even succeeded in expanding the school's uniform code to a snazzier, preppier look. "We have button-downs now, and sweater-vests and cardigans," he said, natty in a sky-blue Oxford and khaki trousers.

Born in New York, Kadheem moved with his mom to Georgia at age 10 – but returned to Brooklyn's Mill Basin when it was time to start high school.
He brought in credits from Georgia – some of which weren't accepted by DOE, including the Algebra and Geometry classes Kadheem took in middle school, and which had to be repeated at Heroes of Tomorrow, setting back his progress through the high-school math curriculum, and limiting his options for advanced work. "I wanted to take preCalc and Calc," he said – but he couldn't, given the math classes DOE required him to retake.

Kadheem turned 18 in March, 2012, making him a year older than many of the seniors at his school. He explained that he repeated first grade, instead of being promoted to second grade along with his friends—an early example of the Bloomberg ban on social promotion.

"I don't look at it as failure," Kadheem says, of his first-grade do-over: "I just think it's another chance to get things right."

Kadheem's optimism defines his public persona, whether discussing the early grade he had to repeat or the later requirement to repeat math courses in high school. Now, he's ranked 12th in his graduating class, he says. His secret: "My motivation of myself. My mom said, you have to do for yourself, you have to be successful for yourself," not for her or anyone else.

"School is just like wrestling," he says. "It takes mental and physical ability to succeed.

One thing that's not quite right, Kadheem says, is the collaboration among the five schools that share his school building.

Sometimes, Kadheem says, he can't use the school library, which is on a different floor than HSPS: Heroes of Tomorrow, because other kids challenge him in the hallway or school safety officers ask for his ID and say, "you don't belong here, go back to your school." (Security is provided building-wide, so officers can be assigned to various schools on different days or weeks, principal Ben Shuldiner said.)

Kadheem says this fractured coexistence limits the relationships students can have with other students, security officers and teachers building-wide: "I want the schools to be more together. The teachers don't know other teachers, the students don't know other students. We see new school safety agents every day," so there's little chance to make friends and build familiarity.

Reaching for a Rising Bar

If the trend that's been established over the past several years holds, Shane and Kadheem will see a substantial majority of their classmates graduate with them. The city's high-school graduation rate has risen on Bloomberg's watch, from roughly 50 percent when he took office to 61 to 65 percent now, depending on whether state or city stats are used, and whether you're counting in June or in August.

Notably, a the city's graduation rate still falls far short of federal No Child Left Behind mandates, which required universal academic proficiency by 2014 – and from which New York, among other states, has been released in part, via federal waiver.

And the grad-rate gains that have been made will likely wobble a bit, because one graduation option, the local diploma, has been completely phased out. That means all public-school students must now earn scores of 65 or better on five Regents exams in order to earn their high school diploma. (The phase-out of the local diploma transpired over many years; students who graduated in 2012 were the first class for whom it was not available.)   Neither DOE nor the state education department has yet posted detailed graduation data for 2012 – so it's impossible to know how many didn't graduate because they couldn't earn a Regents diploma. In 2011, more than 7,600 teens—including more than 6,500 Black and Hispanic students—graduated with local diplomas. Those one-time local-diploma graduates are the kinds of kids who won't walk at Commencement in June 2013, if they don't meet the Regents diploma guidelines.

Meanwhile, stark achievement gaps pegged to race and economics, which Bloomberg and Klein decried a decade ago, have narrowed slightly but remain wide: White and Asian students continue to outstrip their black and Hispanic peers in graduation rate, academic achievement and post-secondary education. The plague of a two-tiered school system – with haves and have-nots, high-achievers and struggling kids, and the persistent, pernicious racial divide – has not been cured, despite the administration's ongoing (and some say Herculean) efforts to mend it.

At the same time, there's more to the story of New York's high schools under Bloomberg than the graduation rate. Tens of thousands of members of the class of 2013 who won't graduate on time might, in another decade (and another mayor's administration) have dropped out or been funneled into GED programs.

But instead they will remain in school – in traditional high schools, transfer schools (for struggling students) and Young Adult Borough Centers, which serve older students who have fallen behind. About 5,000 students are enrolled at YABCs citywide. More than twice as many attend transfer high schools.

After the diploma

As Shane and Kadheem have learned, graduating high school is just one step toward getting the kind of college education that puts on a path to success. Of the increasing number of city high school graduates, most of whom go on to the City University, only about one in five are "ready" to earn average grades in college, according to state education criteria.

The balance, upwards of 75 percent, must take some remediation in classroom basics – math and English – before they are permitted to matriculate and earn credits toward a degree. College-readiness is the prized brass ring of the Obama administration, New York's state education department, and urban mayors nationwide, including Bloomberg.   

Even as the city graduation rate steadily climbed upward, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch cautioned in June 2012, "New York's overall graduation rate has improved, but nearly a quarter of our students [statewide] still don't graduate after four years … And too many of those students who do graduate aren't ready for college and careers." Only 17 percent of New York City's high-school graduates meet the state's college-ready guidelines.

The mayor and his aides are quick to boast about graduation-rate gains. "More students are succeeding in our schools than ever before," the mayor said in June. "When our Administration began, schools hadn't seen significant increases in their graduation rates in more than a decade. Yet through our strategies to improve education, we've steadily improved graduation rates and student achievement for the tenth consecutive year. … [W]hile we still have more work to do, we are certainly on the right track." Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott added that "the Mayor's leadership … has helped change the lives of tens of thousands of students over the past decade."

But City Hall is less eager to acknowledge the discrepancy between graduation and post-secondary readiness.

It is true that more students are graduating from high school – even more so from the small schools that Bloomberg, Klein and Walcott aggressively support and promote, which have an average graduation rate of 70 percent.

Yet significantly fewer small-school grads are considered college-ready – 12 percent, compared to 17 percent citywide. One small school in Brooklyn posted a near-90 percent graduation rate – with 1 percent of students meeting college-ready minimums. Just one factor: college counselors are not on staff at every city high school – and adding them would cost the taxpayers about $800 million, according to DOE's Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky.

Readiness, however, is not one of Kadheem's worries. He'll be the first in his family to go to college, he says. An older brother left high school and is working; a younger sister started high school elsewhere this year ("She didn't want to have to live up to my reputation," he said, only half-joking.) Kadheem's set his sights on the academic stratosphere, planning to apply to Columbia, Harvard and Juilliard, among other schools, in hopes of becoming a lawyer and a performer – but he says he needs his test scores to increase by 150 points (on a 2400-point scale) to be considered for the schools he'd like to attend.

But he's 100 percent certain he's going, his confidence and certitude no small achievement in itself. His future feels familiar enough to taste: "It's really big!" he says, wriggling in his chair, "it's really exciting."