A little more than one week before the city Panel for Educational Policy was set to vote on the fate of eight Queens high schools, and 18 other schools citywide, hundreds of students, teachers, community leaders and elected officials gathered in the auditorium of Flushing High School to plead their case for keeping the school open.
The city Department of Education held the public hearing April 18 on Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to close Flushing High School, and reopen it with up to half the teachers replaced, a new name and another principal.
It was seen by many in attendance as an exercise in futility because the PEP, with a majority of its members appointed by Bloomberg, was expected to vote April 26 in favor of shutting down all the institutions slated for closure.
“I feel what the DOE is doing here is creating a false sense of the democratic process,” said Vinny Tobia, a business and social studies teacher at Flushing High School for the past eight years. “The students are taught that they can make change through their efforts, but the decision has been made already. This is an illusion of the democratic process. This is not a two-way conversation. Students are hoping to effect change and they’ll be discouraged in the future. They will feel disempowered. It seems very un-American.”
The DOE has argued that the large neighborhood institution should be shuttered because of low graduation rates. City officials have also said safety issues have been a concern in recent years.
“Flushing has struggled to improve, and its performance during the last few years confirms the DOE’s assessment that the school continues to require significant intervention to improve student outcomes,” the city said in its educational impact statement, in which the DOE documents the reasons for the proposed closure.
The EIS cites the school’s “consistently low” graduation rate, reporting that it was about 60 percent in 2010-11, below the citywide average of 65 percent.
According to the EIS, Flushing received a D rating on its 2010-2011 progress report, which measures a school’s student performance and environment compared to other schools serving similar populations.
If the mayor’s plan is approved, the school would close at the conclusion of the current school year and be replaced by a new school at the same site in the fall. All students who have not graduated before the start of the new school year would be guaranteed seats. All teachers have to reapply for positions in the new school.
Many of the more than 60 speakers who addressed the assembly, which ran over three hours and took on the feel of a pep rally one minute and a memorial the next, downplayed the validity of statistics and praised the school for what they considered an upswing in performance over the past couple of years.
“Flushing High School is a place of diversity,” said Jabeen Cheema, 17, president of the student committee. “I have observed students having the opportunity to express their creativity. It would be a travesty to change its name.”
Junion James Manning, 16, agreed.
“I’ve never once had a teacher I felt should lose his or her job,” Manning said. “I feel almost embarrassed to have to defend my teachers and their jobs they don’t deserve to lose.”
Placing the school in its historical context, Jessica Dimech, a math teacher and member of the school’s leadership team, pointed out that the 137-year-old facility, located on Northern Boulevard in Flushing, has been through the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement and was still around when the country elected its first black president.
“It has grown stronger,” Dimech said. “We began the changes. They began internally. Flushing High School will grow stronger.”
Kenneth Cohen, regional director for the NAACP, suggested that the only thing the DOE has done is “put fear into the hearts of people.
“This school is the first in Queens to admit African Americans,” Cohen continued. “It has a long legacy. Stand up and do what’s right for the students of New York City and stop closing these schools.”
Gary Newman, a special education teacher for the past 24 years, four of them at Flushing, said, “To disrupt student learning —how does this help our students? The mayor is mad at my union. Is that the legacy Mayor Bloomberg wants? The mayor who closes schools?”
Michael Albertson, who has taught instrumental music at the school since 2003, was visibly shaking as he addressed the assembly.
“I love the faculty and students,” Albertson said later, explaining his emotion. “This has been my only home as an educator — my first job. I love these kids. I don’t want to see this happening.”
Chris Marzian, an English teacher, pointed out that the pair of red devil’s horns he was wearing on his head were an homage to the school’s mascot and “it represents the mayor.”
Turning to Deputy Schools Chancellor David Weiner, he suggested the DOE has not taken a close enough look at the school before making its recommendation to close it down. Marzian said that through his role as yearbook advisor for over a decade, he has “seen the school from every angle — and you haven’t.”
The camaraderie among those speaking out was palpable. AfterJenny Chen, who teaches Chinese at the school, was cut off at the microphone for overrunning the two-minute time limit per person, Washington Sanchez, a representative of the teachers’ union, gave up his time so that Chen might continue.
“My fear (of public speaking) is conquered,” Chen said. “I have to speak out for my colleagues and I have to support my students.”
Most of her students, she said, are immigrants, and their “social and economic backgrounds are disadvantaged.
“Flushing High School is not just a sentimental symbol,” she continued. “It is a front-line battleground" for students with special needs.”