One by one, students, parents and educators from throughout the borough maneuvered through a standing-room-only crowd at Queens Borough Hall Monday night, emerging from a mess of metal folding chairs at the microphone, where they raised fists, voices and even a brightly colored protein model, to get their message to the city across: Plans for eight Queens high schools are a disaster.
Borough President Helen Marshall and her appointee to the city Panel for Educational Policy, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, presided over the forum on Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to replace at least 50 percent of the teaching staff at eight Queens high schools, as well as change the institutions’ names, by this summer.
“This will severely affect the dynamic of the way a school functions,” said Marie Senat, a senior at John Adams High School who presented Marshall with more than 1,000 student signatures against the mayor’s plan.
“We have less than 10 bad teachers at John Adams, and you’re willing to sacrifice 120 hard-working teachers rather than train those 10 bad ones?” Senat continued.
Bloomberg announced the plan in his State of the City address last month in an effort to secure about $58 million in education aid that the state has withheld because the city and the teachers’ union have not reached a deal on new evaluations for educators.
There are 33 schools citywide that could be impacted, including John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Richmond Hill High School, Long Island City High School, Flushing High School, Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Newtown High School in Elmhurst, August Martin High School in Jamaica and Bryant High School in Long Island City. There are about 21,000 students in total at the eight schools.
The institutions are in a federal improvement program because of such issues as low graduation rates and test scores, which mandated the city to implement one of four federally required programs at each institution.
Last spring, the city announced it would use models that would not close the schools or replace teachers, but instead bring in educational organizations that would work with the schools’ communities to improve graduation rates, test scores and morale. Those who spoke at Monday’s meeting stressed that the city told school officials they would have three years to implement changes.
Now, however, Bloomberg said he has the legal authority to instead use the “turnaround” model — which the city had originally wanted to implement last year, but to which the union would not agree.
Like his peer at John Adams, Long Island City High School student Sebastian Zarate slammed the plan.
“The teachers know us better than anyone else,” Zarate said. “If you take them away, you’ll have 3,300 angry students.”
Kathy Carlson, Grover Cleveland’s Parents Association president, noted that a new principal was just placed at her school, who “is making all kinds of improvements.”
Lydia Martinez, also a member of Grover Cleveland’s Parents Association and a Community Board 5 member, said it seems unfair to overhaul the school just as it has begun to implement changes.
“We started doing what they wanted us to do, and now they’re telling us to stop everything?” Martinez asked. “It’s hurting the teachers and students. I feel these kids shouldn’t be here fighting for their schools; they should be home doing homework.”
Jose Ferruzola, the president of August Martin’s Parent Association, noted that the school’s graduation rate is 70 percent — higher than many other schools that are not being targeted in Bloomberg’s plan.
“Think about the education of our kids,” Ferruzola said. “This is their future, and the mayor’s going to mess it up.”
Like a number of educators who spoke, Grover Cleveland High School Assistant Principal Michelle Robertson emphasized that the eight schools in Queens educate large populations of students who need extra attention, such as those speaking English as a second language or individuals with disabilities.
“We take who we get and make them the cream of the crop,” Robertson said, prompting a burst of applause from audience members.
“Mayor Bloomberg, we want to turn around what it is you’re trying to do,” Robertson continued.
Richmond Hill High School Principal Fran DeSanctis said her school has continued to perform better, particularly because it has implemented small learning communities, essentially small schools within the building.
“We serve students who are diverse in many ways,” DeSanctis said. “… They’ve fostered relationships with teachers in our school, and for that to be pulled away would be a crime.”
Erin Flanagan, a physical education teacher at Flushing High School, agreed with DeSanctis.
“It’s extremely abusive and disruptive to the lives of everyone,” Flanagan said.
Bryant High School teacher Ann Balash also stressed that her school takes in “any student that comes to our door.”
“We take in students with no English background and students with disabilities,” Balash said. “We have a lot of students who need a lot of extra support.”
Balash called Bloomberg’s plan “arbitrary and capricious.”
“We just got the transformation model in September, and a few months later we’re told, ‘Sorry, new plan,’” Balash said. “That’s bad management, bad planning.”
Marshall and Fedkowskyj were a receptive audience and also slammed the city’s plans.
“The highest official in our city is deceiving you; that’s not good,” Marshall said of Bloomberg and students. “We want them to believe in our government. He’s not doing the right thing when it comes to education.”
“A politician should not be involved with the education of our children,” Marshall continued.
Fedkowskyj, who has routinely been a critic of the mayor’s educational policies, noted that the implementation of the turnaround models at the eight schools would be voted on by the PEP. While many of the borough presidents’ appointees are often critical of Bloomberg’s plans, the majority of the PEP’s members are appointed by the mayor and almost never vote against his wishes.
“There are many ways to fix the problems in our schools, but one way is not to close the schools,” Fedkowskyj said. “We stand behind you, we’ll do what we can, and we’ll advocate for you.”