State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), parents and students are calling on city officials to remove Martin Van Buren High School Principal Marilyn Shevell, saying she turns a blind eye to students smoking marijuana in the building and on the property, has drastically cut after-school programs and has wreaked havoc on the institution’s morale by not listening to students and teachers.
The city Department of Education “must take immediate action to change the leadership in this school in order to prevent it from failing,” said Avella, who led a press conference outside the school at 230-17 Hillside Ave. in Queens Village last Thursday.
“I personally met with Chancellor [Dennis] Walcott twice to discuss the declining school, and I am calling on him once again to immediately replace Principal Shevell and replace her with a leader who is capable enough to breathe life into this school,” Avella continued. “We cannot allow another one of our neighborhood high schools to fail.”
While campaigning for office, Avella said residents repeatedly raised the issue of widespread problems at Martin Van Buren. When he was elected to the state Senate in November 2010, Avella said, he immediately reached out to Shevell, who has reigned over the school for the past decade.
“I’ve never come across a principal so uninvolved,” Avella said. “The principal couldn’t find enough time to give me a 15-minute tour of the school. It became clear the reason the school’s grades are going down is clearly because of the principal.”
Martin Van Buren received a “D” rating on the city’s most recent schools’ progress report, for the 2010 to 2011 school year, down from the “C” it was given in the prior two years.
Parents and students said drug use, namely marijuana, is widespread within the school, and one student even wore a sign to Avella’s conference that said, “Students have been subjected to second hand marijuana smoke for months in the school without resolution.”
“And there’s marijuana being smoked on staircases,” said Helen Young, Martin Van Buren’s Parent Teacher Association president.
Shevell could not be reached for comment.
City Department of Education spokesman Frank Thomas said while he was unaware of the marijuana issue, the city is “against people smoking drugs in any of our schools.”
“We obviously don’t approve of that,” Thomas said.
The DOE would not comment on the call for a leadership change.
Young and other parents also lambasted the principal for axing after-school programs, including sports.
“The kids want football back after she cut it, but she won’t allow them to do any fundraising,” Young said. “I had to donate basketballs myself for the basketball program.”
Shevell has also cut peer mediation programs and many Advanced Placement classes, and offers SAT prep for students with a 70 grade point average or above, Young said.
Rose McNeil Sullivan said her daughter, who graduated from Van Buren in 2010, never had a home volleyball game during her four years on the team because the principal would not allow it.
“It really hurt her high school experience,” Sullivan said. “She told me, ‘Ma, we’ve been cheated.’”
Avella also said that parents and students have been “forbidden” from going to home games, if they occur.
Thomas said he was also unaware of the sports situation.
“We entrust school leaders to make those kinds of decisions,” he said of the principal not allowing home games.
Students said morale in the school has plummeted because the principal does not heed pupils’ concerns
“A lot of the students are upset, including me, because we have to have lunch before 10:30 in the morning,” said Kimani Mills, a sophomore from South Jamaica.
Avella said while he has spoken to Walcott, as well as other officials from the DOE and the United Federation of Teachers, nothing has been done to address the problems at the school.
“Is this planned obsolescence on the part of the DOE, and they want to close the school?” Avella asked.
A number of civic leaders and area residents also attended Avella’s event, and lamented the decline of the school.
“My two children came here, and every year the school’s wall had a sign on it that it was excelling, that it was number one in scholarships,” said Bernard Aquilino, a Bellerose Manor resident and president of the Rocky Hill Civic Association.
Kirby Lindell, who graduated from Van Buren in 1973, said the school once played a major role in community life.
“They had concerts; they had sports games; they had so many different activities,” Lindell said. “The school was used for everything. There was such school spirit. It’s a crime what has happened to this school.”