In what amounts to a last-ditch effort to save August Martin High School, one of eight Queens schools slated by Mayor Bloomberg for closure at the end of the current school year, students, parents, community activists and local elected officials gathered at the Baisley Boulevard campus in Jamaica Monday night for a combined rally and public hearing, where cries of unfair treatment and accusations of racism set the tone.
The Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on April 26 to determine the school’s fate, seen by many as already sealed.
Some two hundred individuals attended the hearing, many of whom believe that the mayor’s plan to close the schools was prompted by what turned out to be a temporary lack of an agreement between the city and the teachers’ union on the handling of evaluations for educators.
“This is not about the progress of August Martin, this is political,” said Rona Freiser, United Federation of Teachers borough representative and a teacher at the school since 1984.
“The mayor is vengeful. It is what the mayor wants to do because he can. We say to this mayor, ‘We are not going to stand here and take this. Stop the race to the bottom,’ “ she said.
“We have to continue to fight because the mayor does not understand,” state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) said at the rally, held on the steps in front of the school.
“If you want to make a school better, you need resources. I will fight this and we will do everything within our power. There is no guarantee that Mayor Bloomberg will listen to us.”
Inside, her words were even more direct. “This is a process to destroy our children,” she said. “This is a fake meeting. Wake up. Smell the coffee.”
If the proposal is approved, as is widely expected since the majority of panelists on the PEP are appointees of the mayor, the school would close at the end of the current school year and reopen immediately as a new school.
According to the Educational Impact Statement put out by the Department of Education, all current students who have not graduated by the start of the new school year would be guaranteed a seat in the new school.
Per the DOE’s agreement with the UFT, when a new school replaces a school that is being closed, the principal of the new school must develop and implement school-based competencies for hiring the teaching staff. A personnel committee, comprised of the principal, two representatives appointed by the UFT and two representatives appointed by the chancellor, would screen the applicants and do the hiring.
All current teachers would have the right to apply for positions in the new school.
One major bone of contention was the departure of the school’s principal, Anthony Cromer, who amid much controversy vacated his office on April 5. He was immediately replaced by Gillian Smith, founding principal of The Facing History School in Manhattan.
The unannounced departure of Cromer, considered to have a strong following among faculty, parents and students, was seen by many to be the result of pressure from the city.
“I’m really upset the way they took our principal out of this school. He didn’t resign. They went and did trickery,” said Jose Ferruzola, the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association president.
Cleavon Evans, president of the school’s Alumni Association, said, “The DOE should give an apology to the students, the staff and the community. We are outraged that he [Cromer] was walked out of here in front of his students. How dare the DOE do that.”
Assemblywoman Vivian Cook said she had spoken to Cromer, who told her he “did not decide to step down.”
Citing the EIS, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg acknowledged that the school has several elements worth preserving, including a graduation rate that has increased from 53 percent in the 2007-08 school year to 67 percent in the 2010-11 school year, Regents exams that “indicate some success” in English and U.S. history, and “some success in graduating black and Hispanic males performing in the lowest third” of their class.
But, as reflected in the report, he pointed out that only three percent of the school’s 2011 graduates were considered prepared for college, placing it well below the city-wide average of 25 percent.
On the school’s progress report, which measures the progress and performance of the students as well as the school environment compared to other schools serving similar student populations, the school received an overall grade of D for the 2010-11 school year.
Sternberg said that safety issues have also been a concern at the school.
Throughout the evening, nearly every speaker delivered vitriolic barbs aimed squarely in the mayor’s direction, and more than one openly blamed racism as a reason for the proposed closing of Martin.
The school, which opened its doors in 1971, replacing the building’s previous occupant, Woodrow Wilson High School, currently offers four career and technical pathways to its students, including aviation.
It was named for the first African American commercial airline pilot in the United States. Martin died in an accident in 1968 while on a mercy mission to Biafra.
“This does have a racial component to it,” said council member Ruben Wills. “This will be a movement. The school isn’t his,” he said, in reference to Mayor Bloomberg.
Cook said, “The mayor is showing entire disrespect to this community. The mayor should understand he is the mayor of all people.”
Pastor Larry Davidson, of the Resurrection Celebration Center, asked, “Why are we still fighting? We are tired of fighting for something that should have been served for us. We are taxpayers.”
Ruth Bryan, chairman of the school’s Advisory Commission, admitted, “We’ve gone through ups and downs,” but said “the last four years have been very inspiring. We cannot understand why we have not been taken off” the list earmarking schools for closure. Changing the name of the school “would be an insult,” she said.
For Ricky Davis, a teacher in the school’s aviation program who indicated that racism exists in this country’s aviation industry, said that closing the school “does away with our history, with the struggles of our ancestors. You’re taking away our ability for our people to be empowered.”
And Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), said, “It would be madness not to have an aviation program this close to JFK.”
Late in the proceedings, a student at the school, Roberto Joachim, 16, expressed the feelings of most in attendance when he turned to Sternberg and said, simply, “You’re making a huge mistake.”
August Martin: my first school
A retired teacher, now a reporter, looks back
by Mark Lord, Chronicle Contributor
As a journalist, I am expected to maintain complete impartiality when reporting on a news event. But as a teacher who spent the first 14 years of his career at August Martin High School, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic Monday evening as I once again arrived at the portals through which I had previously walked thousands of times so many years ago.
I understand all about progress, and how times change, but I am far from alone in thinking there must be some way to prevent the closure of a school that has come to mean so much to so many, including me.
Upon entering the auditorium, which on this particular night was the scene to which politicians, community leaders, parents, students and others came to fight for the school’s very survival, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of the countless hours I had spent there, toiling over student productions, attending concerts and talent shows, and being involved in other such activities that are sadly disappearing from the landscape of our education system.
The first show I ever directed, a production of “The King and I,” was performed on two early June evenings on that stage and went on to win the top prize in a borough-wide competition. That was back when such competitions were actually held, giving all of us-students and teachers alike-an extra incentive to be the best we could.
And there was the drama class I held once a week on that very same stage. For some reason, one of the school’s football players, who undoubtedly knew more about being a lineman than memorizing lines, ended up in the class. One day, as part of a theater exercise, he shared a very emotional personal story that made him break down in tears in front of the other students. In humiliation, for his reputation might be forever tarnished, he bolted up an aisle and out the door, only to return moments later to a rousing ovation. He had broken down the walls and freed everyone in that class in a way I never could have foreseen. It was the best drama class I ever had.
And I can still remember the morning that the late Broadway singer Theresa Merritt, who lived in the neighborhood, took up our invitation to come to our school to sing the National Anthem as we kicked off the school’s 20th anniversary celebration.
There were lots of things to celebrate over the years, perhaps none as emotional as when we were asked by the producers of the television program, “20/20,” to be the focus of an hour-long episode highlighting our school’s commitment to fighting famine in Africa.
And there were other exciting moments, and sad moments, too, of course, and, yes, challenging moments.
But they are our exciting moments, our sad moments, our challenging moments.
How proud I am to be able to say I am still in touch with many of my students, some dating back over three decades. And I’m even prouder to know that so many of them came out of August Martin with the wherewithal to become successful in careers as television news editors and business executives and recording artists and in lifelong service in the military.
I, for one, would hate to have to one day point to the school and say, “That's where I used to teach, back when it was known as August Martin High School.”