Queens’ educational landscape in 2011 was marked by a sea of handmade signs, the Magic Marker slogans urging city officials not to close places like Jamaica High School or PS 30 in Rochdale Village, to listen to parents and to bring more resources into the failing schools. Residents attended education meetings by the hundreds earlier this year, frantically waving these signs and loudly chanting phrases they hoped would carve a space into the city policy.
In some cases, it worked — after more than 1,000 people attended a rally in support of Bryant High School, for example, the city did not place the institution on a list of proposed phaseouts. Other times, the efforts failed —say, with Jamaica High School, PS 30 in Rochdale Village and IS 231 in Springfield Gardens — all of which the city Panel for Educational Policy voted to phase out, essentially meaning the institutions will be closed over the next several years.
The year began with Joel Klein’s exit as chancellor and the entrance of Cathie Black — the former chairwoman of Hearst Magazines and member of Mayor Bloomberg’s inner social circle who did not land the support of many Queens legislators, teachers or parents. She garnered the outright dismissal of some civic activists — Community Board 10 member David Quintana, for example, wanted to protest her tour of Ozone Park’s John Adams High School early in the year.
About a week after being met by more than 100 angry parents at a town hall-style meeting in Briarwood —including a number from the schools pegged for closure — Black faced approval ratings hovering around 17 percent and Bloomberg announced in April that he was replacing her with then Deputy Chancellor Dennis Walcott. A resident of Cambria Heights who grew up going to, and working in, public schools, Walcott was immediately better received than Black — though many residents’ rosy view of him has faded as he has, not surprisingly, been an advocate of the Bloomberg policies that have not been looked kindly upon in much of Queens — such as shuttering schools and placing a strong emphasis on standardized tests. Former Community Education Council District 26 President Rob Caloras and CEC 24 President Nick Comaianni have launched vehement criticism against Walcott, saying he’s merely an extension of the mayor and has not seriously taken parents’ or educators’ concerns into consideration.
Not everyone in the borough agrees with that assessment, and Francis Lewis High School Principal Musa Ali Shama has said it’s a “very positive thing” that Walcott is a graduate of the Fresh Meadows school, noting he would be sensitive to the need to alleviate overcrowding there.
Walcott made it a goal of his to visit every school upon becoming chancellor, and his trips to Queens institutions have been dominated by talk of overcrowded classrooms. City Department of Education officials have acknowledged that notoriously large classrooms are a problem that has plagued the borough for years, or decades, depending on with whom you’re speaking.
Any community education council president will say overcrowding is one of the biggest problems facing Queens students today, even in the wealthier District 26, which encompasses the borough’s northern neighborhoods like Bayside and College Point. It’s an arguable point, but a number of legislators — state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-Jackson Heights), among others, said western Queens has likely the most overcrowded schools in the city and, they say, possibly the country.
PS 19 in Corona, for instance, has a student population of a little more than 2,000, while the elementary school, which Ferreras attended as a child, was built to hold approximately 1,300. Because the school has been crowded for years, the city implemented 10 portable classrooms outside the building more than a decade ago and officials told the school they were a temporary fix to a longstanding problem. Those portable units are still being used.
Students and educators were relieved when the city announced it would not close nine schools in Queens that could have potentially been shuttered because the state placed the institutions on its “persistently low achieving” list.
The schools include John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens Vocational & Technical High School in Long Island City, Flushing High School, August Martin High School in Jamaica, Richmond Hill High School and William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City.
Despite the relief over those schools remaining open, many parents said they feel the city’s decision to keep one instituion over another does not take into account comments from parents. The DOE, and Walcott, have said they value parental input.
However, Caloras said he refused to run again to head the District 26 CEC because he was so disenchanted and frustrated with the DOE and said he believes the city sees the parent groups as nothing more than impediments to complete control of the educational system.
As 2012 rolls around, parents said they hope that when they wave their signs and wait for hours to speak at meetings, that their voices count.