This Monday afternoon at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, groups of students crowded around Principal Grace Zwillenberg, telling her tidbits about their days — the essays they are writing for class, the documentaries they are making on their Model United Nations club, the trials and tribulations that come with being a teenager trying to figure out exactly how they fit into this world.
That scene is a snapshot of what school officials say routinely happens there — enthusiastic students being supported by teachers and administrators who put in long hours to see their pupils, many of whom face such challenges as homelessness or being new immigrants who speak little English, graduate and go on to college or successful careers.
It is for these reasons that Zwillenberg said the entire school community breathed a collective sigh of relief to learn the city Department of Education decided John Adams High School would remain open with the same principal and teaching staff as they have now. The city DOE announced last week that John Adams, along with five other Queens high schools, would not be phased out, as was a possibility because the state had placed the institutions on its “persistently low-achieving” list due to low graduation rates. Instead, the city will bring in educational nonprofits that will work with the schools to strengthen curriculum and develop academic support for students.
“We’ve made incredible progress,” Zwillenberg said. “Last year we had a 60 percent graduation rate, which was up from the previous year’s 50 percent. We’ve narrowed the achievement gap, we got a B on our progress report. I’m very proud of this staff and our students.”
Along with John Adams, the other institutions from the state’s list that will remain open are August Martin High School in Jamaica, William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City, Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood and Richmond Hill High School.
Because those schools were placed on the state’s list, the city was mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to implement one of four improvement models: phasing out the school, replacing its leadership, closing it immediately or bringing in a management company.
City officials opted for the latter for each of the Queens schools, and an educational nonprofit will begin working with school leaders, students and parents by the end of the year to start implementing changes at the start of the next school year. Each school is also eligible for up to $6 million in federal funds over the next three years to help them turn around.
City officials said they were limited to choosing between the management companies and closing the schools because the teacher’s union would not agree to the other two models.
“We definitely would’ve wanted to have the option of every single model,” DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said.
However, Zarin-Rosenfeld noted the extent to which they would have used the other two models was unknown and said they may have still used the educational nonprofit option for the schools even if the other options were on the table.
The city this year has voted to close Jamaica High School, PS 30 in Rochdale Village and IS 231 in Springfield Gardens.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said he was pleased the nonprofits would be helping the schools. Addabbo’s district includes John Adams, Grover Cleveland and Richmond Hill high schools.
“They deal with individual schools’ unique needs,” Addabbo said of the management groups. “They get input from teachers and parents, the students get to continue to go to the school as the school’s improving. Any dark cloud these schools are under is not long lasting. They’re onto better days.”
Zwillenberg agreed and noted many of her students are already achieving at high levels. For example, John Adams’ Model UN team was recently selected out of thousands of entries to make a documentary for the United Nations about preparing for a Model UN debate.
“I really attribute our progress to our small learning communities,” Zwillenberg said in reference to the groups that allow students to remain with the same assistant principal, guidance counselor and core group of peers from sophomore to senior year.
The principal said each small learning community has a “career-themed base,” including business, law, health and sports, environmental science and mass media communication arts.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) also said they were relieved the high schools would remain open, particularly Bryant High School, from which both of them graduated.
Van Bramer helped to organize a rally attended by more than 1,000 people in support of Bryant last month. Simotas also attended the event.
“It’s really important for people to know that Bryant High School is a good school,” Van Bramer said. “There are very talented, very smart young people who are going there and dedicated teachers teaching those young people. Bryant High School has been improving already pretty steadily for the past few years, and its graduation rate has been climbing.”
Simotas praised the DOE for choosing what she called the “least intrusive” model of transformation.
“It’s a time to celebrate,” Simotas said. “Bryant is an institution in Astoria, and I can’t tell you how many friends I have who graduated from Astoria and who now teach there.”
State Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), who represents the area that includes Richmond Hill High School, and other legislators, including Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) and state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), have emphasized the importance of maintaining large neighborhood schools.
Zwillenberg too emphasized this point, saying it is because they are a large neighborhood school that they were able to create a dual language program for Bengali students, of which there are about 100 in John Adams.
Had these students not been in a neighborhood school and instead spread out in smaller schools throughout Queens and the city, Zwillenberg said they may not have gotten those same services that allowed them to excel in school.
“I commend the New York City Department of Education for its commitment to improve Richmond Hill High School and preserve it as a resource for the Richmond Hill community,” Lancman said in a prepared statement.