Not long after this year’s graduating seniors were admitted, the city Department of Education moved for a second time to close Jamaica High School and, after four years of slowly being phased out, the school graduated its final 24 students on Thursday, June 26, 2014.
“You are the 175th graduating class,” Principal Erich Kendall told the graduates, “and there will not be a 176th.”
I was a member of the class of 1994 and have been involved in efforts to save the school. I’ve had many opportunities to return to Jamaica; watching the school phase out has been like watching a loved one waste away, particularly for the students and teachers who lived the loss daily. Principal Kendall wondered if immediate closure would have been merciful; others noted that then the students and teachers wouldn’t have been able to spend those years together. The loss of Jamaica is traumatic for those who love the school.
Shortly after I graduated, New York Times reporter and Jamaica alum George Vecsey wrote of a visit to the school, “I see the same energy, the same dreams, the same potential. You remind me of my friends.” I can say the same thing about the graduating class of 2014: they remind me of my friends, and I am happy to welcome them to the Jamaica High School alumni family. I could not be sorrier that there will not be any more members added to this family in the future.
“We were told Jamaica was a failing school, but we came, and we saw,” said graduate Philip Samuel. “We stayed. We chose to come to Jamaica and to work hard with our teachers to overcome any disadvantages associated with attending a closing school.”
Twenty-plus years ago I was told I should reconsider my decision to go to Jamaica; how wrong people were. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “I heard it was a bad school, but I was so wrong.” I wish we had been able to make more people believe us. Jamaica was family, a second home and, in spite of phaseout, this sentiment was echoed by this year’s seniors.
The Jamaica these students knew was different in many ways than the one I attended. As Jamaica’s student body shrank, the school lost classroom space to the growing schools co-located within the building. Honors and AP courses disappeared, as did the specialized programs like my old computer science program. Favorite teachers were excessed, including one who represented the very heart and soul of Jamaica. Every semester brought loss. If you can succeed in a phasing-out school, Principal Kendall said, you can succeed anywhere. I have no doubt the 2014 graduates will succeed; they are truly impressive young adults.
Student speakers expressed gratitude for the undying support of their teachers. Teachers past and present attended graduation. More than a few were emotional watching tribute videos, including one set to Passenger’s “Let Her Go.” The song’s lyrics say, “’Cause you only need the light when it’s burning low, only miss the sun when it starts to snow, only know you love her when you let her go.”
Jamaica alums know we love the school, and just how much we loved her became truly apparent when we had to let her go, but the wonderful thing about Jamaica is the people. That can’t be destroyed, and I’m clinging to the knowledge that Jamaica lives on in its alums.
Jamaica has great alums. Assemblyman David Weprin, class of 1974, was saddened by the closure of his alma mater and spoke at graduation of the fact that his brothers (including Mark, a member of the City Council) both are alumni as well. The legacy of the school, he said, will live on in its graduates. Given the number of alumni and friends in attendance at graduation — including Borough President Melinda Katz, whose father taught at Jamaica High School, and Special Assistant to the Borough President and former City Councilman Leroy Comrie, who graduated in 1976 — that legacy is strong and will remain.
“These students understood the loyalty and pride of being part of Jamaica High School,” coach Susan Sutera said. “They carried the legacy of tens of thousands of students who came before them and they did it with incredible honor and dignity. They sent the school out with a bang.”
I never wanted to say goodbye to Jamaica. Walking its halls, seeing the mural in the lobby depicting colonial Jamaica, photos of students who attended long before I was even born and trophies representing decades of athletic dominance, and, most importantly, meeting alums from the 1950s through today, I know without a doubt you can’t replace Jamaica High School.
Kathy Forrestal is a museum educator and graduate student in education at St. John’s University who lives in Hillcrest Estates.