By the time the city Panel for Educational Policy voted to close 24 city schools, including seven in Queens, around midnight last Thursday, just a handful of the hundreds of teachers, parents and students who had flooded the meeting in its earlier hours remained — but their alternating weeping and jeering could be heard throughout the cavernous auditorium.
Leaning their foreheads against outstretched palms, those who stayed into Friday’s early hours at Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights Campus seemed to personify the mood among those at the schools slated to close at the end of June —defiant one minute, and dejected the next.
“Let us count,” a group yelled each time the PEP voted to close a school. “Are there eight? Eight puppets, and four heroes.”
The PEP voted 8-4 to shutter the 24 facilities. Seven of Mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, and the Staten Island borough president’s representative, approved the mayor’s plan to close the schools and then reopen them in September with up to half the teachers replaced, new names and potentially other principals. The borough presidents’ representatives from Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx voted against the closures that numerous educators, legislators and civic leaders argue target schools that educate large numbers of English language learners and minorities. Bloomberg and city Department of Education officials have said the closures are necessary to address low graduation rates and test scores at the institutions.
The United Federation of Teachers said after the vote that it was considering suing the DOE to stop the closures.
The schools that will be impacted in Queens are: August Martin High School in Jamaica, Bryant High School in Long Island City, Flushing High School, John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Long Island City High School, Newtown High School in Elmhurst and Richmond Hill High School. Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood had also been pegged for closure, but Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced last Thursday morning that it had been removed from the list.
“We tend to forget that the public school system belongs to the public and that the public should play an integral role in any significant change that may take place within their school community,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the PEP. “I can honestly say that didn’t happen, since decisions were made to abandon the current and proven educational models overnight, leaving our school communities confused and fighting for something that rightfully belonged to them.”
For hours, students and others addressed the panel members, urging them not to close their institutions.
“For the past three years, I’ve seen the bureaucracy screwing around with our school,” Davon Pearsall, a junior at Flushing High School, said prior to the PEP’s vote. “Freshman year we had one principal, then we got another principal, and now they want to get rid of that principal? Who’s failing who here?”
While the facilities will each be technically closed at the end of the school year, each will reopen — under a new name and potentially with major staff changes —in September. Walcott insisted at the PEP meeting that there is no “set quota” for how many educators will be replaced. However, if half the teachers are not replaced, the school would not receive the up to $2 million for which it would otherwise be eligible, according to federal guidelines.
“Money drives policy, and this policy was developed based on the opportunity to obtain federal funding,” Fedkowskyj said.
City officials said every student at the schools now will have a seat at their respective institution next year.
Each of the schools slated for closure has been in a federal improvement program since the beginning of the school year to help it with such issues as low graduation rates and test scores, and each federal program was expected to last three years.
City Department of Education officials chose not to close the schools last year and instead implement other plans, like partnering them with educational nonprofits, after the state placed the schools on its “persistently low-achieving” list. Because of regulations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the city has to implement one of four federal programs at the schools on the PLA list, which run the gamut from partnering the schools with nonprofits to axing half the staff.
After implementing two programs, known as “restart” and “transformation” at the institutions, Bloomberg announced in January, less than six months after they began, that he aimed to axe these initiatives for the more aggressive “turnaround” model —which includes replacing up to half the teachers.
“The timing of this sudden and unwarranted switch to the turnaround model has generated unnecessary panic and confusion,” Fedkowskyj said. “Schools have been improving over the last two years, some more than others, and they played by the rules, but now it’s not good enough. The switch in models has created a negative cloud over all of these schools and, as a result, many parents may select other schools, which will only further flood our already overcrowded high schools.”
The PEP’s vote left students, parents and teachers reeling, and many said they felt as though the public hearings held at each of the schools over the past month, which thousands of people attended, and the public comment before the vote, were a farce and that the city had already made up its mind when Bloomberg first announced the plan. The city is mandated by state law to hold the hearings.
“I’m disgusted,” said Sally Shabana, a Spanish teacher at Richmond Hill High School. “For the first time, I’m embarrassed to be a New Yorker, with a mayor who’s racist and anti-immigrant.”
Shabana, like many others who spoke, noted that many of the schools slated to close include large numbers of minorities and English language learners.
“Our graduation rate is not 60 percent, as you say — that is our four-year graduation rate,” said Georgia Lignou, a history teacher at Bryant High School. “A lot of our students are [English as a Second Language] students who need an extra year to graduate.”
Daniel Rhodes, the head of John Adams’ school leadership team, said he was initially wary of the Ozone Park school, which was founded in 1930, but has grown to love it.
“When my daughter first went there, I hated it,” Rhodes said at the PEP meeting. “But I watched that school grow —the graduation rates went up. We have stretched, reached and made it, but you’ve pulled the rug out from under us.”
Just before panel members voted on the school closures, they voted on Fedkowskyj’s resolution to abandon the turnaround model. The resolution failed by the same vote, 8-4.
Fedkowskyj, a vocal critic of the closures, argued the schools should be able to continue the federal programs that began this year. Additionally, he said the turnaround model could prove to be expensive if half of the teachers at each of the schools are replaced. The replaced educators are not fired, but are placed into what is known as the “absent teacher reserve,” and continue to receive an annual salary.
The principal and representatives from the teachers’ union and city DOE will sit on a panel that will decide which of a school’s educators will be rehired. Every teacher at the closing schools will have to reapply for his or her job.
“We are not sticking to a hard 50 percent,” Walcott said. “We can go above 50 percent.
“Dollars would be nice, but that’s not the ultimate goal,” Walcott continued.
Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee and a consistent critic of the mayor’s educational policies, echoed Fedkowskyj’s concerns.
“This is an extreme measure, and it’s not clear we’ll get federal funding,” Sullivan said. “We would lose up to 50 percent of teachers, and what evidence do we have that this is the right policy?”
Deputy Schools Chancellor Marc Sternberg said they have implemented the turnaround model at about 10 schools during the past decade.
“These are strategies that we know work,” Sternberg said. “This is a process to tap talented educators. This is an opportunity to introduce new programming.”
Legislators from all corners of the borough have slammed the closures, a number have said they support the union’s possible plan to sue the city.
“Obviously, I’m terribly disappointed by the PEP’s vote, though not surprised, and disappointed in the process that the DOE had and the fact that they disregarded thousands of people who spoke up and rallied,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who graduated from Bryant. “It was a very bad day for the Department of Education and its legacy. I have talked to the UFT, and I’ve told them I’d love to be a party in any lawsuit and join in any and all efforts to undo this terrible decision.”
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) noted that John Adams and Richmond Hill high schools have “very long histories” in their communities and said there were “valid, credible arguments made to have them removed from the turnaround list.
“Perhaps there is still hope that both can at leastretain their namesand keep their respective faculties,” Addabbo concluded.