It was a scene that no doubt will be played out across Queens for weeks to come.
Hundreds of people jammed into the Grover Cleveland High School auditorium in Ridgewood on Monday for the first of eight school closure hearings planned for the borough. For hours, students, parents, educators and civic leaders pleaded with city Department of Education representatives to not go through with their proposal to close the institution at the end of the school year and reopen it with up to half the teachers replaced and a new name, citing everything from improving graduation rates to anecdotes about teachers spending their weekends helping struggling students.
Mayor Bloomberg has proposed the same plan for seven other schools in Queens, and there will be a public hearing at each of those institutions before the city Panel for Educational Policy —made up predominantly by mayoral appointees who have never before rejected a plan from the mayor —votes on the closures at its April 26 meeting.
“We want to show the mayor that we like what we have here,” said Diana Rodriguez, the senior class president at Grover Cleveland. “For Mayor Bloomberg to come in and try to implement something that he doesn’t even know will make a difference, we don’t like that. And we don’t want that.”
Originally, Bloomberg had said he wanted to shutter 33 schools throughout the city that have been in a federal improvement program because of such issues as low test scores and graduation rates.
However, city officials announced this week that they have dropped seven of those schools from the list —none of which are in Queens.
“Do not think this is over,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, a Grover Cleveland graduate and the Queens borough president’s appointee on the PEP, who has been an outspoken critic of the mayor’s plan. “Today seven schools came off the list. We still have a chance to save Grover Cleveland.”
Many of those who spoke at Monday’s hearing stressed that Grover Cleveland has been improving, particularly under the federal program that the city selected for the school at the beginning of this school year, for which each participating school receives up to $2 million in federal funds and which was expected to last about three years.
But Bloomberg axed plans to continue what is known as the “transformation” program — which brought in educational nonprofits to work with the schools — and instead intends to implement the more controversial “turnaround” model. While the mayor and city education officials had said they expected half the teachers to be replaced at the targeted schools, DOE representatives have recently changed their tune and said at a number of public meetings that there is no set percentage they aim to replace.
Additionally, Deputy Schools Chancellor Marc Sternberg said the Monday night hearing was “not a decision point,” while the same was not said for Bryant High School at a hearing the following day in Long Island City.
“This evening is not a moment in time when the department intends to convince you that if you oppose the proposal, you are wrong,” Sternberg said.
“A decision like the one we’re here to discuss is the most difficult that we make and comes from a place of wanting to serve all our students,” Sternberg said, garnering loud jeers from the audience. “In the case of Grover Cleveland, we see many strengths here.”
Speakers detailed a long list of those strengths, including the school being one of five institutions in the nation to be chosen by the Lenovo manufacturer and the National Academy Foundation to design and create mobile applications, otherwise known as apps, for computers. There was talk of the school having one of the city’s few girls wrestling programs, the spring and fall fairs the school hosts for the community and its greenhouse.
Brian Gavin, a member of the school leadership team, argued that if the city replaced half the teachers, many of these programs could fall by the wayside.
“All the work we’ve done in implementing our small learning communities, which gives students not only classes but a home, will be undone by removing the staff that designed them,” Gavin said of the recently created smaller academic groups that allow students to work with a core group of teachers on a topic that interests them, including hospitality and tourism, technology, and arts and design.
School officials credit the small learning communities with helping to boost graduation rates, which are expected to increase to around 70 percent this year, up from 58 percent last year.
“Implementing turnaround would be a slap in the face to all the dedicated teachers here,” said PTA President Kathy Carlson. “Our teachers work on Saturdays. Why would we want to replace such teachers?”
Carlson, who added her son has discovered a love of computers while studying at Grover Cleveland, also stressed the work the teachers do with the students in, and out, of school.
“There are festivals, community cleanups, blood drives, charity work,” she said. “There are so many great clubs and sports teams.”
Eleana Crespo said she discovered a love of psychology while at the high school.
“It breaks my heart,” she said of Bloomberg’s proposal. “This school has done so much for me. I found myself here. For this school to break up makes no sense to me.”
Elected officials also slammed the plan.
“Take Grover Cleveland off the list of turnaround schools,” state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said. “It’s not only an emotional request, but a fact-based request. We have a faculty working very hard to turn this school around, and they have done so.”
Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood), who graduated from the school, also said the city should stick with its original plan of implementing the transformation model for two more years.
“We know our school faces challenges, but this [turnaround] model will not achieve the changes we need,” Nolan said.