Last Thursday, Grover Cleveland High School students came to school prepared for a fight.
They had their signs, their chants, and their speeches to read before the city Panel for Educational Policy voted on whether or not to close the Ridgewood institution.
Then one announcement changed everything —the city, just hours before the vote, said the school of about 2,400 students would be spared the fate of 24 other institutions across the city, including seven in Queens.
“The principal made an announcement over the loudspeaker, and you could hear her voice cracking,” Parent Teacher Association President Kathy Carlson said. “She had tears in her eyes; she was so happy. When she made the announcement, you could hear the whole school scream.”
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Thursday morning that the large neighborhood school, founded in 1931 at 21-27 Himrod St., had been removed from the list of institutions pegged for closure.
The city also said Thursday morning it would not shutter Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn.
In his State of the City in January, Mayor Bloomberg proposed implementing what is known as the “turnaround” program at 33 schools, all of which had been in a federal improvement program that began in September and had been slated to last for about three years. Ultimately, the city voted to close 24 schools —meaning they will be technically shuttered at the end of June and reopened in September with up to half the teachers replaced, a new name and possibly another principal.
“Over the past several weeks, during public hearings and visits from my senior leadership, we looked closely at schools whose performance and quality of instruction have shown positive signs in the last two years,” Walcott said in a prepared statement. “We have come to believe that two of these schools, Grover Cleveland High School and Bushwick Community High School, have demonstrated an ability to continue their improvements without the more comprehensive actions that are clearly needed at 24 other schools.”
Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee to the PEP —a group made up primarily of mayoral appointees that votes on city education matters, such as school closures —questioned at Thursday’s meeting why the city spared Grover Cleveland the axe when other schools on the list had higher graduation rates.
Grover Cleveland’s four-year graduation rate was 58 percent last year, and is expected to hit about 70 percent this year. The city’s average hovers around 65 percent.
“Long Island City High School received the same ‘C’ grade on its progress report, and Long Island City has a higher graduation rate —66 percent,” said Sullivan, a vocal critic of Bloomberg’s educational policies.
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, said they took a series of criteria when deciding to pull Grover Cleveland and Bushwick, including progress reports and public comment.
“We saw some real strengths at Grover Cleveland and Bushwick,” Polakow-Suransky told Sullivan.
Sullivan also said there had been comments made that Grover Cleveland and Bushwick had been spared because of political pressure —Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood), a graduate of Grover Cleveland and the chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee, pushed the city to keep her alma mater open, while Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) lobbied for Bushwick.
Polakow-Suransky said, “it’s not about satisfying the teachers, it’s not about satisfying the politicians,” but that the move was meant to help students.
The decision to spare Grover Cleveland has relieved educators, parents, students and legislators, all of whom have been fighting for months to ensure the school would not undergo the radical transformation that was proposed.
“The kids are hugging and kissing each other; it’s a very emotional building right now,” Grover Cleveland Principal Denise Vittor said Thursday morning.
Vittor said she believes the city’s decision was in part thanks to the support from the community, particularly the legislators, who rallied in favor of the high school.
“The entire community came together,” she said. “There was no division. Nobody blamed each other. It was about coming together to move the school forward.”
Nolan and Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the PEP and a graduate of the Ridgewood school, said in a joint statement that the city Department of Education has “recognized the strength and improvement under Principal Denise Vittor, and all the excellence that the Grover Cleveland community offers.”
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) also praised the decision, and Vittor — who just became Grover Cleveland’s principal at the beginning of the school year.
“This news is a testament to the hard work of the school community, the students, parents, teachers and Principal Vittor at Grover Cleveland,” Crowley said in a prepared statement.
Like the other schools that will close, Grover Cleveland was in a federal program implemented at the beginning of the school year, which partnered the schools with educational nonprofits to help them with issues like increasing graduation rates.
That federal program, known as “transformation,” was expected to last for three years, but Bloomberg announced in January, less than six months from the program’s start date, that he wanted to implement the more aggressive “turnaround model.”
Vittor said she is unsure if Grover Cleveland will remain in the federal program that began this year, but she expects to soon sit down with the DOE to discuss the school’s future.
“Now that we’re not in turnaround, where do we fall?” Vittor asked. “How are we going to go about funding the programs we’re beginning and what supports do we have in place?”
Vittor emphasized she hopes Grover Cleveland can continue to work with the educational nonprofit, High Schools That Work.
“I have nothing but high hopes,” Vittor said. “I believe the DOE is really going to take a look at different supports for us.”
As Vittor noted, the school received a swell of support from community members when the mayor announced his plans to close the school.
Hundreds of people attended the city’s public hearing on closing Grover Cleveland earlier this month, and for hours everyone from students to civic leaders touted the facility’s achievements, including improving graduation rates and anecdotes about teachers spending their weekends at the school helping struggling students.
Those who spoke at the hearing detailed a long list of those strengths, including the school being one of five institutions in the nation to be chosen by the Lenovo manufacturer and the National Academy Foundation to design and create mobile applications, otherwise known as apps, for computers.
They also praised the school for having one of the city’s few girls wrestling programs, the spring and fall fairs the school hosts for the community and its greenhouse.