New York City’s Affinity District (Part 2): The Origins

By Norm Fruchter

The roots of the Affinity District lie in the 1960’s, a period of fierce ferment in U.S. public education. During that decade, civil rights activists, scholars, and critics in key disciplines challenged the nation’s dominant beliefs about the equity and effectiveness of our public schools. Revisionist historians demonstrated the severe class, racial and ethnic biases structuring public education’s origins, funding, and resulting outcomes.  Insurgent sociologists showed how U.S. education’s structures reflected and promulgated meritocratic and individualist ideologies.  Radical economists linked grossly inequitable student outcomes to class and race differences and argued that our corporate economy shaped public education to serve its labor-force needs.  A broad range of teachers-turned-critics charged that American public education had grown so bureaucratized that authentic student learning necessitated the invention of new schools. 

Teachers, university professors, community organizers, parents and VISTA volunteers (VISTA was a Kennedy-era youth service program) responded to this ferment by creating hundreds of new schools. (I was part of that movement, having taught in and directed an alternative high school for dropouts in Newark, New Jersey.) These alternative efforts ranged from progressive and libertarian schools to African American academies that developed curricula focused on African heritage themes and philosophies. Two broad categories of schools emerged. One group developed independent schools outside public systems, supported by private funds occasionally supplemented by student tuition. Many of these schools served relatively advantaged students and developed school cultures based on democratic principles of participation and decision-making by students, teachers, and parents.  Almost all schools in this category disappeared within their first ten years, except for those schools that featured African American historical and cultural themes.

The second category of alternative schools took root within urban school districts, targeting students who had opted out of traditional high schools.  These schools became known as high schools for dropouts or second-chance schools, responding to student need through new forms of curricula and instruction, as well as through vibrant and supportive learning cultures. In New York City, the first alternative high schools started as street academies and store-front operations. The New York City Urban League organized some fifteen street academies, financed by major banks and corporations, during the late ’60s. These academies collaborated with the city system to help some 2,000 out-of-school Black and Latinx youth graduate from high school.

By the early 1970s, NYC teachers and administrators were developing small school settings within the city system for students who had left traditional high schools before graduation. Several of these small alternative schools founded almost a half-century ago, such as the Urban Academy, the series of Satellite High Schools, City as School, Pacific High School, West Side High School, and South Brooklyn Community High School are still serving overage and disaffected students.

These alternative high schools were defined as second-chance institutions or transfer schools because students could only enroll in them if they’d left a traditional high school before graduating.  But during the 1970s and ’80s, several new small high schools were created that significantly revised the second-chance or transfer nature of the city’s growing number of alternative high schools. 

Middle College High School, currently still operating, was established on the campus of LaGuardia Community College, one of the eight two-year colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY), in 1974.  This initiative targeted students assessed by their teachers and guidance counselors as at risk of dropping out of high school and developed a supportive learning environment to help those students realize their academic potential and graduate.   Because students entered Middle College High School directly from middle school, Middle College was a direct entry alternative high school, rather than a second-chance or transfer high school.  A few years later, two other community college campus high schools were formed on the Middle College model. Those campus high schools were subsequently joined by other CUNY-based high schools and eventually evolved into the CUNY Affinity District.

In 1985 the initial International High School (IHS) was founded for immigrant students on the same campus as Middle College. IHS’s work led to the creation of several other such high schools and eventually a local and national network focused on educating immigrant youth (see below).

Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), a 7th through 12th grade school was also founded in 1985, based on the Central Park East elementary school initiated in 1974 in East Harlem, then one of New York City’s poorest immigrant communities.  CPESS featured a block-scheduled Math-Science and humanities curriculum, introduced advisory groups for students, provided an intensive learning community for teachers, and based graduation on demonstrations of student proficiency.  Since CPESS, like Middle College, also enrolled students from elementary school or middle school, CPESS became another direct entry alternative high school.

Also in 1985, the city system’s Board of Education created the Alternative High School Superintendency to supervise and support some twenty alternative high schools serving more than 5,000 students. As the alternative sector grew, the Alternative High School Superintendency standardized school admissions and developed varieties of supports for teacher recruitment, curriculum formation, and professional development.  The Alternative High School Superintendency also formulated fiscal allocations tailored to alternative school needs and developed start-up funding that allowed new alternative schools to phase in their planning and staffing.

As the decade of the 1990’s began, some forty alternative high schools, both transfer, and direct entry, were serving almost 10,000 New York City public school students.  As the graduation and dropout rates at many of the city’s large, traditional high schools reached alarming levels, compromising the futures of the Black and Latinx students who constituted the vast majority enrolled in those schools, the pressure to create more small schools based on the alternative high school model intensified.

In 1993, NYC Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez supported a new small high schools initiative developed by the Fund for NYC Public Schools, which subsequently became New Visions for Public Schools. The initiative inspired more than 300 non-profit groups to submit proposals for break-the-mold small high schools, and sixteen proposals were selected and funded to become the initial group of New Visions schools. Brooklyn College Academy, El Puente, the Renaissance School, the Museum School and several other schools from the original New Visions effort are currently still in operation.

As the New Visions initiative was unfolding, the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), a network of elementary, middle and high schools embodying the progressive educational principles of John Dewey, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier, announced the formation of a dozen experimental high schools including the Coalition School for Social Change, Landmark High School, Manhattan International High School, Manhattan Village Academy, and Vanguard High School. Later in 1993, CCE initiated the second cohort of Campus Coalition High schools, which included the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, Wings Academy, and Brooklyn International High School. All these schools are currently still operating.

CCE also supported several school networks which eventually became members of the Affinity District.  In 1998, for example, New York State’s Education Commissioner granted a waiver of most Regents examinations, which the state requires every high school student to pass, to a group of CCE high schools that were developing performance-based assessments as a more complex measure of student eligibility for graduation. Those high schools subsequently formed the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a current member of the Affinity District.

Another CCE member, the first International High School (IHS), founded in 1985 at LaGuardia Community College, pioneered new modes of curriculum, grouping, and instruction for newly arrived immigrant students. IHS was joined in CCE in the early 1990s by the Manhattan and Brooklyn International High Schools, and during the following decade, the three schools formed their own network to develop and share curricula, do joint professional development, and work on performance-based assessment. After Bronx International High School opened in 2001, the four International schools formed a national organization, expanding their network by starting similar schools within the city and across the country. The Internationals Network New York City high schools ultimately became part of the Affinity District.

The Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science, on the Hostos Community College campus in the Bronx, and the Brooklyn College Academy, two of the original CUNY campus schools, were joined by a series of early college high schools on CUNY campuses in the early 2000s, and by several P-tech schools on college campuses later the same decade. CUNY organized these affiliated high schools into a network that evolved into the CUNY Affinity Schools District.

Local and national foundation support was critical to the growth of the school networks which eventually became members of the Affinity District. The Aaron Diamond Foundation funded the initial cohorts of both the New Visions and Coalition Campus small high schools. The Gates, Carnegie, and Soros Foundations funded the subsequent school creation efforts of New Visions, the Internationals Network, the Performance Consortium, and the CUNY small high schools, as well as other high school reform efforts.

New York City’s Affinity District (Part 1): What is it?

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Norm Fruchter is a senior consultant for the NYU Metro Center. He can be reached by email at: norm.fruchter@nyu.edu.