By the time the city held its public hearing on closing John Adams High School in Ozone Park last week, everyone —the Department of Education officials, students, teachers, and parents —knew what to expect.
The DOE knew it needed to station a big, bouncer-like security guard near the microphone to escort people away if their often- impassioned speeches ran too long. The students knew there would be hundreds of their peers there, waving colorful homemade signs and chanting slogans urging Mayor Bloomberg to reverse his decision to close the school and reopen it with up to half the teachers replaced, a new name and potentially another principal.
The teachers knew they would watch their colleagues for hours, telling stories about coaching football and robotics teams, their first days in the school years and years ago, or becoming confidantes for everyone from students being abused to those struggling in homeless shelters.
Similar themes have dominated each of the hearings at the eight Queens schools the mayor aims to close — the city argues the schools have for too long suffered from low graduation rates and test scores, and teachers and legislators accuse the DOE of insufficiently funding the school for years —but the differences surface as the speakers wove their narratives last Thursday at John Adams, hoping to sway a vote expected to be held at the city Panel for Educational Policy’s April 26 meeting. It is then that the specific names come out — the stories about John Adams Principal Grace Zwillenberg hiring Rosemary Wildeman, a guidance counselor who described herself as “an old woman” who didn’t know if she’d find a job again, a teacher becoming a mentor to a student being abused at home, and the baseball coach, Glenn Bayer, detailing how his students do everything from bringing toys for sick children at Jamaica Hospital to volunteering at soup kitchens.
It was in John Adams’ massive auditorium, its tall ceilings and arched windows dwarfing even the largest of crowds, that people filled in space between the city’s Educational Impact Statement — a document detailing why it believes the school should close — and the union’s declarations that the mayor has torched anything worth saving in the educational system.
“To close our school is a huge injustice,” said student Sukhmani Singh. “A lot of the teachers and students have formed unique relationships.”
Singh, like many others, cited the long list of sports teams and clubs — 28 and 14, respectively —as being especially successful in giving students a chance to feel a part of something.
Symone Simon, one of the editors of the school newspaper, said her time in the debate and Model UN clubs has particularly helped her with choosing a career path —she hopes to work for the United Nations — and with such skills as public speaking.
“I never thought I’d have to stand here, in the greatest city in the greatest country on earth to fight for education,” Simon said. “When did we become a third-world country?”
Singh and Simon were two of 103 people who signed up to speak during the public hearing, which the city is legally required to hold. Many of those who spoke cited the names and places that are familiar to those in the John Adams community in what seemed to be a cathartic outpouring of emotion, a sort-of eulogy for a nearly 90-year-old school that many legislators have said they believe the city already knows will be shut down because the PEP is made up predominantly by mayoral appointees who have never rejected anything Bloomberg has proposed.
“I’ve been hearing this is already decided, that this is a dog and pony show,” state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach said).
Quoting John Adams, the second president of the United States, Addabbo urged the city to reconsider its plans to shut the school and change its name.
“John Adams said, ‘Let us dare to read, think, speak and write,’” Addabbo said. “I don’t think John Adams would be very happy about what’s going on here tonight, and I’m not either.”
Deputy Schools Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, who is retiring this year after working in city education for 34 years, said the city wants to overhaul John Adams because, “we are seeking to rapidly create a school environment that will prepare students for college, career and life.
“Some data indicates some elements of John Adams are worth incorporating in the new school,” Rodriguez continued. “It appears to have some success in graduating English language learners — 66 percent of English language learners graduated in four years.”
She also cited low graduation rates as a persistent problem, though school officials said their rates have gone up significantly —about 17 percent over the last five years. The school had a 64.2 percent graduation rate last year, and it is expected to hit more than 70 percent this year.
The school has received one B and two Cs on the last three report cards. The DOE has said it flags schools for closure when they have received a D, F or three Cs in a row on the progress reports.
School officials also said they expect John Adams to be removed from the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools this year due to its improvement. Because John Adams, and the other Queens schools pegged for closure, were placed on the state’s PLA list, the city was forced to choose one of four federally-mandated programs for the institutions, which included closure or partnering the schools with educational nonprofits. The city last year chose the latter, and the nonprofits began working with the schools at the beginning of this school year.
Each of the schools began to record progress, but in January Bloomberg announced he planned to implement the more aggressive federal program that included replacing teachers.
A number of educators and legislators have accused Bloomberg of doing this to retaliate against the teachers’ union because there had been — and continues to be — no agreement reached between the union and the city on a new annual evaluation system for teachers.
“We cannot allow the DOE and mayor to play political games with this school,” Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said. “You know who failed this school? The mayor and chancellor. Where are they tonight?”
Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) also lambasted the plan, saying City Hall aims to close schools it has seriously underfunded for years.
“The city continues to take away funding from our schools,” Miller said. “This results in cutting important programs and services, such as sports and fine arts, after-school programs, remedial services, and psychological and counseling support. Because we have taken away the essential services our students need to succeed, and their performance has dropped, the blame has fallen on our teachers. But we have increased our requirements for standardized testing, created a dubious teacher evaluation system, and given teachers more and more out-of-classroom assignments. Now, Department of Education bureaucrats are coming in and telling our teachers how unsuccessful they are and how they should do their jobs.”
Alongside Ulrich and Miller, a number of other neighborhood leaders spoke out against the plan, including Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton and Richmond Hill South Civic Association Margaret Finnerty.
Braton noted that the community board supported the casino at Aqueduct in part because it generates millions of dollars specifically for education in the state.
“We expect you’ll be able to find monies to support the school closest to that facility,” said Braton, who graduated from John Adams 50 years ago.
Finnerty, also an alumna of John Adams, said any change to the school’s name “will be a total slap in the face” to the community. Finnerty’s civic raised more than $23,000 for an electronic sign for John Adams in 2007 in memory of Kelvin DeBourgh Jr., 23, a John Adams alumnus who was killed while operating an AirTrain that derailed on a curve during a test at JFK Airport in 2002.
Whatever happens, students, teachers and civic leaders said, they will consider themselves members of “the Adams family.”
“I am not a failure; my students aren’t failures; the teachers aren’t failures; the administrators aren’t failures,” said Keith Scalia, an English teacher. “John Adams isn’t a failure. So who’s failing?”