It was a night dominated by parents sullenly crossing their arms, teachers rolling their eyes and a defensive schools chancellor who swore the mayor is paying attention to residents’ concerns.
That, more than anything else, garnered loud scoffs from audience members at a forum organized by Community Education Council 26 at MS 74 in Bayside on Feb. 16.
It was, essentially, two hours characterized by the miscommunication and mistrust that seems to have defined so many of the meetings about education in the city for years.
“The mayor has been extremely supportive of teachers,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said, receiving several boos and loud snorts from the audience. “Under this mayor, we’ve gotten a 43 percent increase in teachers’ base salaries.”
CEC 26 President Jeannette Segal said her organization, made up of parent volunteers who serve as an advisory council to the city, wanted the meeting to bring Walcott into an area she calls “almost the forgotten district.”
“We want him to see you have partners here, but you need to help us too,” Segal said.
There weren’t many people saying they were Walcott’s partners, but they did plead with him to do something on a variety of issues, from replacing the principal at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village to changing the city’s emphasis on testing and its policy of closing large high schools and replacing them with smaller institutions.
“Things aren’t working out at Martin Van Buren High School,” said Dino Sferrazza, who has taught at Cardozo High School in Bayside for 17 years. “I’d hate to see that school fail when we can see it needs help and support.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), parents and students held a rally last week calling on the city to oust Van Buren Principal Marilyn Shevell, saying the school has experienced a severe drop in test scores and morale under her leadership.
Sferrazza said other area high schools, including Cardozo, Francis Lewis and Bayside, are “bursting at the seams” in part because students do not want to attend Van Buren.
“In the last five years, I’ve seen our registered numbers go up and our dollars go down,” he said. “Families do not want to send their children to Martin Van Buren.”
Walcott promised that he and other Department of Education officials are aware of the situation there.
“We need to work closely with Van Buren to raise the external image so they can attract students,” said Walcott, who added he would not address complaints about the principal at the meeting.
A number of parents said they are concerned the DOE is allowing Van Buren to fail so the city could close it.
“I did not say ‘phase out’ in conjunction with Van Buren,” Walcott said, using the term the DOE employs for closing a school over a number of years.
Walcott also said there are “a lot of good programs at Van Buren,” something refuted at last week’s meeting by the school’s Parent Teacher Association president, Helen Young.
“We don’t see those programs that you talked about,” Young said.
A number of teachers told Walcott they are frustrated with the city’s emphasis on standardized tests and said that focus on data, combined with overcrowded classrooms, has made teaching a career that is no longer desirable.
According to statistics from the United Federation of Teachers, of the 7,882 teachers hired for the 2002-03 school year, 49.9 percent had quit within seven years. About 11 percent of teachers hired between 2002 and 2009 quit by the end of their first year, and nearly a quarter quit by the end of their second year.
About 42 percent of those hired in the same time period left within five years.
Attrition of new teachers was highest in upper Manhattan and the South Bronx. It was lowest in Staten Island, followed by districts 25 and 26 in Queens.
Referring to a gym and health program implemented by the city in 2005, physical education teacher Kevin Revell said, “Fitnessgram is so time consuming that most of the fourth- and fifth-graders spend their time doing test prep while others are doing meaningful physical activity.”
Revell added that the “strong emphasis on collecting data” has “gutted physical education.”
Walcott bypassed Revell’s criticism of the testing, saying he has “never heard any negative feedback about Fitnessgram.”
“I’m a big believer in Fitnessgram,” Walcott said. “With obesity in our schools, I’m a big proponent of it.”
Sue Kimmel, a graduate of Martin Van Buren and retired teacher who spent more than 30 years in the public school system, said the overcrowding seems especially problematic.
“Some classes have 30, 32 children in them,” she said. “You cannot tell me one teacher can persevere and do everything without the help of someone else in that classroom.”
Susan Kahan, a teacher in District 26, said she has “never been quite as frightened about our school system” as now because she’s worried about the city’s plan to soon integrate many of the system’s special education students into general education classes. Kahan said she’s worried not because of the idea of integration, but because she believes the city will not allocate the needed staff or resources to help general education teachers to accommodate the influx of students who often need more attention.
“I believe it will be a success,” Walcott said. “Integrating our students is an ideal goal.”
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) criticized the city for closing large high schools, such as Jamaica High School, his alma mater, saying students from the shuttered institutions then flow into other already-crowded area schools.
“We have Cardozo, and it’s probably one of the most overcrowded high schools in the city,” Weprin said.
Walcott defended the city’s policy, saying “by closing poor performing schools and putting in higher performing schools, we feel it gives parents more options to choose from.”
He added that the opening of Maspeth High School next year will help to alleviate overcrowding.
“Maspeth will be a popular school, Queens Metropolitan will be a popular school as it grows,” Walcott said. “I’m not at the point where I say, ‘We’ll cap these schools like Cardozo and Francis Lewis.’”