It was the stories of those who were not at last week’s public hearing on the mayor’s proposal to close Richmond Hill High School that may have mattered the most.
They were the stories — told by teachers and peers — of students who are abused, homeless, or hungry; pupils who have to take care of their siblings because their parents are working a handful of jobs; teens who, as one educator put it, “have been through more than many adults can even imagine.” These are the students, they told city officials at the April 18 hearing, who come to Richmond Hill High School after nights of no sleep, who wonder if parents are going to be deported, who walk past gang members each morning to get to school.
Many of the 2,900-plus students at the school, which was built for 1,800 people, are, one student said, the ones “everyone else” in the city has given up on.
“Some of our parents aren’t there for us, and the teachers are,” said Deyan Naraine, a sophomore at Richmond Hill High School, located at 89-30 114 St. “They act like our moms and dads. I’d be very hurt to see this school come to a close.”
Because Richmond Hill has a troubled population of students, as well as many English language learners, school officials said they have needed the city to pour more resources into their building for years. Instead, they accused the city of turning a blind eye to the issues, which is why teachers and parents said Mayor Bloomberg is now looking to close the school at the end of June and reopen it with up to half the teachers replaced, a new name and another principal by the beginning of the next school year.
“These kids are not getting support,” Charles Di Benedetto, an English teacher, said. “They’re coming in here with such problems that we can’t handle them. The DOE says we’re not doing enough —well you know what? The mayor’s not doing enough.”
The mayor is proposing the same plan for seven other schools in Queens, and 18 additional facilities throughout the city.
The schools pegged for closure had all been in a federal improvement program because of low graduation rates and test scores, and they were partnered with educational nonprofits at the beginning of this school year. The nonprofits aimed to help the schools boost graduation rates — Richmond Hill, for example, expects to graduate more than 60 percent of its students this year, compared to 41 percent five years ago — and test scores by focusing on areas like school environment and student absences. The citywide graduation rate average is about 65 percent.
Under federal guidelines, the programs are expected to last about three years, though Bloomberg announced in January, less than six months after the schools were paired with the nonprofits, that he wanted to axe the initiatives and replace them with a more aggressive federal program that includes removing teachers and potentially principals.
The city Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the closures at its April 26 meeting, and the group is expected to approve the plan because it is made up mostly of mayoral appointees. The Queens borough president’s appointee, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, has been a vocal opponent of the proposed closures, and said he will vote against them.
“I’m not voting no because of politics; I’m voting no because it’s a flawed policy that lacks longterm vision,” Fedkowskyj said.
Numerous parents spoke at the hearing, and they stressed they are pleased with the variety of academic programming at the school.
“I thought it was my worst fear, my daughter coming here,” said Anna Christina Duer, whose daughter is a freshman. “I can’t tell you the pleasant surprise we’ve gotten with the programming and support we’ve gotten here.”
Still, Vishnu Mahadeo, a parent and former Parent Teacher Association secretary, said the school needs to hire a more diverse staff to accommodate its population.
“In Richmond Hill is the highest concentration of Punjabis in the city, but that is not reflected in the staff,” Mahadeo said.
Christopher Bello, a junior, said he has found the school, with its teachers and student body, one of the “most respectful” places.
“I’m openly gay, and I’ve never been ostracized for that at Richmond Hill High School,” Bello said. “I’m embraced and loved here.”
After hearing more than three hours of testimony from students, teachers and parents, Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm noted that the evening was, “a night for us to listen and not to make decisions.
“We certainly heard a tremendous amount of passion about Richmond Hill High School, especially from the students,” Grimm said, garnering applause from hundreds in the audience.