Before the city’s public hearing on closing the 115-year-old Newtown High School in Elmhurst had even begun, the jeers from hundreds of irate students overpowered the Department of Education’s representative urging quiet.
They, along with teachers and parents, demanded that the city delay the hearing until the deputy schools chancellor slated to preside over the meeting arrived, which officials did, and the decision buoyed a crowd hoping the move could foreshadow the mayor himself heeding the shouts of those lambasting the proposal to close the storied institution.
“Personally, I think this school is amazing,” said Marc Anthony Green, a student who helped make a video touting Newtown’s various achievements — from its robotics club, which just won the city regionals to a guitar program serving at-risk students — that was shown during the hearing. “It’s the best school I’ve ever been to in my life.”
Mayor Bloomberg aims to shutter Newtown, along with seven other Queens schools, and reopen it in September with up to half the teachers replaced, a new name and potentially a new principal. The city Panel for Educational Policy is expected to vote on the closures of the eight Queens high schools, as well as 18 others throughout the city, at its April 26 meeting.
Deputy Schools Chancellor David Weiner —whose arrival allowed the hearing to begin —said the city has proposed the closure in part because of low graduation rates. Last year, the school’s graduation rate was 62 percent, which students and teachers stressed was up from 53 percent in the 2008-09 school year, and is expected to be around 65 percent this year.
“Tonight we’ll hear success stories about what’s happening here, and there are many success stories,” Weiner said. “But you have to consider the students who started with your students who haven’t experienced the same kind of success.
“Though graduation rates have risen to 62 percent, that still places Newtown in the bottom third of city schools,” Weiner continued.
Teachers and parents said the graduation rate needs to improve, but they stressed that they have been working hard to improve it and have since seen promising results when the school was placed in a federal improvement program and partnered with Johns Hopkins University at the beginning of this school year. Each of the schools pegged for closure was placed in a similar program, which was expected to last for three years. Bloomberg announced he did not plan to continue these programs in January, and instead aimed to implement what is known as the more aggressive “turnaround model.”
“We do not want to be part of some school improvement experiment,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the PEP and a vocal critic of the closures. “Our school community has suffered enough through budget cuts and increased class size and are not in the market for another DOE band-aid approach to fixing our school.”
“Instead of the three years promised, we’ve been given only six months,” said Jessica McDermott, an English teacher and the school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. “Johns Hopkins has referred to us as a model site, but we’ve been given six months for one reason and one reason only — Mayor Michael Bloomberg.”
In addition, teachers noted that they are also working with the nonprofit Queens Community House, which works to stay on top of students who are chronically late to school.
Students also participate in what is known as a credit recovery program, for which they attend school during evenings and on weekends in order to graduate on time.
Debra Martinez, a parent who serves on Newtown’s school leadership team, and Shirley Lopez, the Parent Teacher Association president, emphasized that the institution has one of the largest number of English language learners in the city.
“My daughter went here, and now she’s graduating from college with honors,” Martinez said. “She was an ELL student when she came here. They have to give us time. Our community has a lot of Spanish people. Newtown is a home for newcomers from other countries.”
Lopez said, as many of the hearing speakers did, that she wants the school’s makeup to remain as it is now.
“We want Newtown saved,” Lopez said. “We want the same staff, the same teachers, the same principal.”
Borough President Helen Marshall and Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) also urged the DOE to not close the school.
“Principal [John] Ficalora, this is a wonderful school,” Marshall said. “You’ve done a tremendous job in one year and should given the full three years.”
Dromm received a roar of applause when he said the mayor has “decided to play politics with these children’s lives.”
“I’m happy to report to you we have only one and a half years left of this administration,” he continued.
See separate stories on the closure threat to other schools in Queens, and lawmakers’ efforts to forestall them, in the local news sections here at qchron.com.