Volume 76, Number 15 | August 30 -September 5, 2006

Back to School

Villager photo by Joshua Kristal

Tim Timberlake, principal of Chelsea Vocational High School on Sixth Ave.

Chelsea Vocational principal is making things work

By Anindita Dasgupta

Tim Timberlake, Chelsea Vocational High School’s principal, is not a complainer. He is proud of Chelsea Vocational High School, and despite that the building is over 100 years old and has some outdated aspects, he says the school is doing just fine. 

Chelsea Vocational High School, at 131 Sixth Ave. on the western edge of Soho, is housed in a five-story building originally built as an elementary school in 1848. Both the building and the school have gone through a lot of changes over the years. The building has been remodeled a number of times, and the school, among other changes, went from co-ed to all boys during the 1940s to 1980s, before returning to co-ed in 1984.

In the last few years, improvements have led to higher graduation rates and lower suspension and absence rates. The school made local newspapers in 2003 when one of its students, 14-year-old Eric Alvarez, tragically died while trying to “surf,” or ride, on top of a subway car; and then again in 2005 when a rowdy group of students harassed storeowners on Thompson St.  

Despite these incidents, the school is in good shape, said Timberlake, citing the fact that 40 percent of last year’s seniors graduated with Regents diplomas.

“All New York City schools have a bad rap,” he said. “That’s just the mentality.” 

Timberlake described his students as average New York City kids from all over the city. The majority of the students come from the Lower East Side and Washington Heights.  

Originally from the city, Timberlake moved Upstate for personal reasons to teach in Poughkeepsie. He returned with his family a few years later, this time teaching at Martin Luther King Jr. High School on the Upper West Side, where he stayed for eight years. Ten years ago, Timberlake came to Chelsea Vocational where graduation and attendance rates were sinking and building facilities were crying for renovation. He was brought in as an assistant principal in math and science, but advanced to principal in 2002 when the previous principal, Arnold Levine, resigned.  

At the time, the school still used low-voltage DC electricity for its lighting, was heated by coal and lacked adequate science laboratories. Graduation rates hovered around 50 percent and suspension and attendance rates painted a dismal picture for Chelsea Vocational’s future.  

As principal, Timberlake made some changes. He split the school into small learning communities, where one teacher would be responsible for a set of students. As a result, teachers began tracking their students and calling their homes when they missed class. The change brought a sense of ownership to the teachers, he said.  

Timberlake also changed the lunch policy, restricting ninth-graders from leaving campus. He implemented the Gold Card policy, which required students to achieve a number of academic credits to leave campus for lunch. Timberlake also suspended more students in his first few years as principal, proving to students that they had to follow the school’s rules or face the consequences. While suspension rates increased at first, Timberlake said this past year they were cut in half. 

Pleased with his staff, Timberlake praised their dedication to the school.

“There is an atmosphere of trust,” he said of his staff. They supported him in his efforts to set higher standards for their students and willingly helped with the changes he envisioned for the school, he said.

Renovations of the building have also restructured the school’s facilities with the addition of laboratory space and conference rooms, up-to-date electrical and heating systems and new whiteboards installed in classrooms this past summer.  

Even as a principal, Timberlake continues to teach one class a year because he feels it’s important to stay connected with both the students and the teachers in the school. He teaches 10th-grade geometry and says he loves watching his students learn.

“Their energy gives me energy,” he said. “I just like when kids get it — that moment when everything becomes clear.” 

Timberlake appreciates the chance to work with New York City students.

“New York City kids are vibrant,” he said. “They have a lust for learning.” He continued that the most important task for teachers and administrators is to keep their students interested.  

“We do lose some students, but it’s the bored ones that we lose. It’s our job to find a way to reach them,” he said. 

Timberlake added that the school tries different approaches to “reach” students. As a vocational school, the administration encourages students to pursue internships by working with local companies, such as Morgan Stanley, Cisco and Epic Theatre Company.

Teachers also encourage students to learn from their pasts and embrace their creativity by assigning memoir projects and asking students to create lyrics to songs, which often become self-reflective. Teachers often bind classroom collections, creating professional-looking collective anthologies.

In a memoir project, students recorded short childhood memories. These ranged from students recalling first loves (one student wrote about his third-grade girlfriend — recalling how she said hi to him once in a while in passing), and favorite toys (Barbie, Streetfighter and Pokemon were popular) to memories of hearing gunshots for the first time at age 15. Students described these milestones in a simplicity only a teenager could achieve. In another collection of student work, students described their personalities in a few words next to self-portraits. The few words next to each picture reflected confidence and determination to succeed. Some described themselves as fun, cool and polite, while others listed immediate goals such as “passing this exam.” Seemingly summing up the new positive direction of Chelsea Vocational, a few simply said, “I respect myself and others.”

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