“Let it be said you should never underestimate the community school as a powerhouse,” Grover Cleveland High School Principal Denise Vittor said to a group of parents, students and elected officials, all of whom gathered for the school’s legislative breakfast last week and decried Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to close — and reopen with about half the teachers replaced — the Ridgewood institution built during the Great Depression.
While Vittor, parents and legislators — particularly Assemblywoman and Grover Cleveland alumna Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) — said that the high school has had its fair share of problems in recent years, including low test scores and safety issues, they said it is rapidly improving and becoming the powerhouse it was once known to be, thanks in part to newly implemented small learning communities. These communities are smaller groups within the large school, which houses about 2,600 students, which work closely with a core group of teachers. Grover Cleveland students voted on which SLCs they most wanted to begin this academic year, which focus on such areas of study as hospital and tourism, technology, business and arts and design.
“It’s really bad they’re trying to close the school down, especially because the academies are really good,” Nataly Jara, a sophomore, said of the SLCs. “Everyone really loves them.”
Natalie De Jesus, also a sophomore, added the learning communities help students to “get an idea of the kind of career we want.”
The academies were implemented this year as part of the school’s efforts to improve after being placed on the state’s persistently low-achieving list, which forced the city to choose from one of a number of federal programs for the school. The city last year opted to implement what is known as a “transformation” model, which was meant to be a three-year program in which Grover Cleveland had access to federal funds while working to improve things like test scores and graduation rates.
Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano said this seemed to work, and the school’s graduation rate is likely to be around 70 percent this year, up from last year’s 58 percent.
However, Bloomberg announced in his State of the City in January that he aimed to close 33 schools in the federal improvement programs, including eight in Queens.
The city Panel for Educational Policy is expected to vote on the proposed closures at its April meeting, and the group will likely approve the plan because it is made up predominantly of Bloomberg’s appointees.
Prior to the vote, there will be public hearings on the plan at each of the high schools. Grover Cleveland’s hearing will be held at the school on April 2 at 6 p.m. The school is located at 21-27 Himrod St. in Ridgewood.
After the city opted last year for the transformation model, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the PEP, said he was “relieved.”
“I thought this was what the school wanted, what the students wanted,” he said at the legislative breakfast.
So, when the mayor opted instead to cut off the transformation programs and proposed that half the teachers be replaced and the schools be renamed, Fedkowskyj said he was confused.
“They skewed the data,” Fedkowskyj said. “They’re using excuses, and it’s unacceptable.”
Fedkowskyj said he will introduce a resolution at the April meeting that calls for the city to abandon its plan to close the schools. This measure is likely to garner support from many of the other borough presidents’ appointees from the other four boroughs, who have been critical of the mayor’s policies, though Bloomberg’s appointees have never rejected any of his prior proposals.
Nolan, who chairs the Assembly’s Education Committee, state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), and Borough President Helen Marshall all condemned the mayor’s plans at the breakfast. Still, Nolan said Grover Cleveland continues to face “very serious challenges” that it must address, including a relationship with the community that has deteriorated over the years.
“It should’ve been having breakfasts like this for 25 years, but it wasn’t,” said Nolan, who added that the school has dramatically improved since Vittor became principal this year. “One of the ways it has to change is its relationship with its feeder schools —they have to be more involved with what goes on here. We have hospitals, factories and businesses nearby. We have to get them involved in this school.”
Feeders are intermediate schools in the area.
Legislators, including Addabbo, have said even if the mayor insists on replacing the teachers at the schools, that the city should not rename the institutions that have long histories in their respective communities.
Following the breakfast, Vittor emphasized the school’s history —as well as future — and pulled out a photo album laboriously made decades ago that includes pictures of each of the Grover Cleveland students and graduates who served in World War II. Under each photograph includes the individual’s name, as well as where they served, and, in many cases, died.
“Every time you take out a school and give it another name, you lose a piece of history,” Vittor said.
The principal added that the school is undergoing a bit of a “Renaissance,” and emphasized it is trying to increase its ties to the community. Parents said the changes at the school have made them feel increasingly comfortable at the school.
“My son went from just being able to get by to being an honors student while he has been at Grover Cleveland,” PTA President Kathy Carlson said. “Our teachers here are so dedicated; it’s like a family here. For them to rip that apart, it would be so horrible.”