“Fowler High School never had a chance,” laments The Post-Standard education reporter Julie McMahon at Syracuse.com.
The mayor who was in charge of the doomed high school’s construction was more concerned with the $12,000 kickback he received from the architect than he was with the quality of materials being used. According to The Post-Standard’s report, the school was built, poorly, on top of the Syracuse sewage system, which occasionally backed up into the cafeteria on rainy days. The first students to walk the halls in 1975 tell horror stories of a school with a half built auditorium and empty pool. Year after year, the school literally began to sink because of its rotten foundation.
But it is not just this ugly past that doomed Fowler High School, but a pervasive indifference to West Side schools and the much poorer, more diverse student body they service.
Like much of the West Side, a disproportionate percentage of the Fowler population is black, and many of them come from families who are financially struggling. That’s hardly surprising considering that as of 2015 black families were 13 times poorer on average than white families.
Plans to close the school have been underway since April 2014, and after 41 years, the sad story of the Fowler school has come to an end.
The West Side school is one of the poorest in the country, plunging deeper into poverty with every year.
The school hasn’t graduated even half of its seniors on time in a decade. A former principal told state officials a few years back that parents – 85 percent of whom have low or no incomes – “are not really involved in their children’s education.”
Ironically, education programs designed to help struggling schools, like No Child Left Behind, actually sealed Fowler’s fate. When the school was unable to show that it was meeting certain “turnaround” requirements, its days were numbered.
Now, the Syracuse City School District’s Board of Education is planning on replacing Fowler with the Public Service Leadership Academy (PSLA), a public school that is geared towards vocational education and job readiness.
PSLA, unlike Fowler, will be run like a magnet school and will require students to apply for admittance. The hope is that the new, vocational style of education will even attract the eye of students across the city and help alleviate some of the financial burdens that Fowler has faced as one of the poorest schools in the country.
Magnet schools appeal to many families, and 79% of parents believe that students learn in different ways. As a result, the school district hopes families from around the city will be interested in attending PSLA. According to Syracuse.com, PSLA will open under the direction of Superintendent Jaime Alicea, a former Fowler principal.
However, not everyone is excited about the new school. Sue Henry, a lifelong West Side resident, viewed Fowler as a place of comfort and community for the local children.
“That’s the sad part,” she said to McMahon. “It’s not that neighborhood school anymore. It’s not the West Side family that we used to have.”
Darlene Medley, another West Side mother, shares some of those concerns, especially for children who do not fit with PSLA’s vision.
“What’s going to happen to those kids? What will become the next school for ‘underachievers?'”
And Fowler is not the only West Side school that is experiencing troubles. In May 2017, parents at the Westside Academy at Blodgett learned that desperately needed renovations at the school might be delayed, again, in favor of other projects.
Passed over for the first round of renovations, frustrated parents chanted as one, “When?” as school officials and members of the Joint Schools Construction Board explained that they simply did not have enough funding for meaningful renovations.
The delay in renovations has significant ramifications for the West Side Community, as it reduces the student population capacity from 900 to only 403, with much of the building being closed off due to asbestos.
With Westside Academy at Blodgett and Fowler both located within a mile of one another, some residents are seeing a clear pattern of West Side students being brushed to the side. Unfortunately, many poor Syracuse students face obstacles to education access as soon as they begin preschool.
“Pre-K students are not eligible to ride district school buses,” declares the district’s website, “Therefore, families are responsible for transporting their children to and from the prekindergarten program.”
The problem is that providing transportation for pre-kindergarten students is a proven way to increase attendance and reduce absenteeism, especially among low-income families. Attendance in preschool programs is a key factor in later academic performance and general success in society: one study found that 70% of at-risk children who did not attend preschool were more likely than their peers to be arrested for a violent crime.
The closing of Fowler high is just the latest chapter in the dismal history of West Side schools.
Still, not everyone is skeptical of the transition to PSLA. Some parents are even excited. Others, like current Fowler senior Ziona Woodall, are simply ready for a change.
“Over the years, Fowler’s got this bad rep,” she said to McMahon. “It’s time for us to stop it. Let us start fresh.”