Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) gets memos on his desk all the time. But one piece of information that crossed his desk in mid-June took him by complete surprise.
The memo explained that the city Department of Education is planning to co-locate a new school in the Martin Van Buren High School building in Queens Village and a vote on the proposal would come in October, only weeks before the Bloomberg administration is out of office.
Weprin was flabbergasted. Not only was it unprecedented for the DOE to call for such a dramatic change in the fall, but it is targeting a school that he says they’ve just started to turn around after years of neglect.
Immediately, Weprin fired off a letter to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott asking him to halt any co-location at the school.
For the last couple of decades, Van Buren — which has a long list of famous alumni including actors and Nobel Prize winners — had a negative reputation for being a school of crime and faltering academics. But since the school got a new principal, Sam Sochet, last year, officials and civic leaders from the community surrounding Van Buren say it has made a dramatic turnaround and to mess with it now would be an egregious mistake.
“When I was running for the state Senate, one of the issues that was brought to my attention was that Martin Van Buren was going downhill. It had a bad reputation and parents did not want to send their children here,” state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said at a press conference with Weprin, Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) and other officials and civic heads. “We got a new principal. He energized this school. Walcott did a tour of this school and made all kinds of promises to turn this school around. Now we get the knife in the back.”
Weprin said he is extremely angry about the lack of communication between the DOE and elected officials and community leaders over the proposed co-location.
“ For the DOE not to tell elected officials, administrators responsible for this school; and ... the community about it, that’s really outrageous,” Weprin said.
Frank Toner, president of the Rocky Hill Civic Association, which covers the section of Queens Village around Van Buren, said he had bad experiences with the past principal and feels the school has been improving both as an educational campus and as far as a community institution.
“We’re proud to say Van Buren is part of our community,” he said. “It has a proud tradition and we want it to stay that way. My experiences with the last principal were not the same. It’s so different now. Mr. Sochet is starting to turn things around.”
Toner said he has taken part in meetings about the school and Sochet has even opened up the gymnasium for the community to watch basketball games.
“You didn’t have that under the last principal,” he said.
Kirby Lindell, vice president of the Bell Park Manor Co-ops, a community located across the street from the school, said;
“This school is a wonderful school if it’s given the resources. For 10 years, this mayor and this Education Department allowed this school to fall into decay.”
Lindell, himself a Van Buren graduate, said he’s seen the school’s turnaround firsthand.
“In one year, [Sochet] has added honor classes,” he said. “He’s added a medical program. This man is reaching out to the community and bringing us all in. We do not need another school in there, with another principal taking money away from Martin Van Buren.”
Harsiman Jeet Singh, an incoming senior at Van Buren, said he is concerned about the DOE’s plans.
“Changing this school now is a big mistake,” he said. “Don’t destroy this school.”
When asked if he’s seen a turnaround at the school since his freshman year, Singh responded with an empathetic “yes.”
The DOE has defended the co-location, arguing that it is good for the school and for prospective students. In a statement, DOE spokesman Devon Puglia said the new school, which is still in the works, will be modeled after other successful schools in the city and will improve the educational experience at Van Buren.
“We’ve been nationally recognized for our visionary new school models, and this new option replicates those that are in extraordinarily high demand across the city,” Puglia said. “This new school will deliver great outcomes for neighborhood students. Parents in this community are clamoring for, and will continue to demand, more high-quality options, and we’re going to keep delivering them.”
In March, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to co-locate three new high schools in existing campuses in Queens: one in Newtown High School and two in Flushing High School. A co-location for an elementary school is planned for August Martin High School in South Jamaica this year as well. All three schools were on the list for closure in 2012 before a successful lawsuit filed by the United Federation of Teachers halted the closures. Van Buren was not on that list.
However, Avella suggested that the latest move may have been a backdoor attempt by the city to torpedo the school.
“Is this done on purpose by the mayor and the chancellor to kill this school?” he asked. “Is that why the old principal was allowed to stay? To kill this school?”
At Monday’s press conference, Deputy Borough President Barry Grodenchik noted that it was just last fall that the school’s large clock on its exterior facing Hillside Avenue was fixed after more than a decade — a testament to the turnaround of the school, he argued.
“Don’t turn the clock back at Van Buren,” he said.