After thousands of students, parents and teachers protested Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to close 24 schools across the city, including seven in Queens, the city Panel for Educational Policy voted 8-4 Thursday night to shutter the institutions.
Seven of the mayor’s appointees, and the Staten Island borough president’s representative, voted to approve the plan to close the schools at the end of June and reopen them in September with up to half the teachers replaced, new names and potentially other principals. The borough presidents’ representatives from Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx voted against the closures.
“We tend to forget that the public school system belongs to the public and that the public should play an integral role in any significant change that may take place within their school community,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the PEP. “I can honestly say that didn’t happen, since decisions were made to abandon the current and proven educational models overnight, leaving our school communities confused and fighting for something that rightfully belonged to them.”
The schools that will be closed in Queens are: August Martin High School in Jamaica, Bryant High School in Long Island City, Flushing High School, John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Long Island City High School, Newtown High School in Elmhurst, and Richmond Hill High School. Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood had also been pegged for closure, but Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced Thursday morning that it had been removed from the list.
“For the past three years, I’ve seen the bureaucracy screwing around with our school,” Davon Pearsall, a junior at Flushing High School, said at the public hearing held at the Prospect Heights Campus in Brooklyn prior to the PEP’s vote. “Freshman year we had one principal, then we got another principals, and now they want to get rid of that principal? Who’s failing who here?”
While the facilities will each be “closed” at the end of the school year, each will reopen — under a new name and potentially with major staff changes — in September. Walcott insts there is no “set quota” for how many educators will be replaced.
City officials said every student at the schools now will have a seat at their respective institution next year.
Each of the schools slated for closure have been in a federal improvement program since the beginning of the school year to help them with such issues as low graduation rates and test scores, and those programs were expected to last three years.
City Department of Education officials chose that program last year, after the state placed the schools on its “persistently low-achieving” list. Because of regulations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the city has to implement one of four federal programs at the schools on the PLA list, which run the gamut from partnering the schools with educational nonprofits to axing half the staff.
After implementing two programs, known as “restart” and “transformation” at the institutions, which includes partnering schools with the nonprofits, Bloomberg announced in January, less than six months after they began, that he aimed to axe these initiatives for the more aggressive “turnaround” model — which includes replacing up to half the teachers.
“One can justify an aggressive approach on education reform after implementing a plan for three years, not three months,” Fedkowskyj said at the hearing. “Mayor Bloomberg had 10 years of education reform and not once during my four year tenure has the term ‘turnaround model’ ever been expressed. One would have to ask, why now?
“The timing of this sudden and unwarranted switch to the turnaround model has generated uneccessary panic and confusion,” Fedkowskyj continued. “Schools have been improving over the last two years, some more than others, and they played by the rules, but now it’s not good enough. The switch in models has created a negative cloud over all of these schools and, as a result, many parents may select other schools, which will only further flood our already overcrowded high schools.”
The PEP’s vote left students, parents and teachers reeling, and many said they felt as though the public hearings held at each of the schools over the past month, which thousands of people attended, and the public comment before the vote were a farce and that the city had already made up its mind when Bloomberg first announced the plan. The city is mandated by state law to hold the hearings.
“I’m disgusted,” said Sally Shabana, a Spanish teacher at Richmond Hill High School. “For the first time, I’m embarrassed to be a New Yorker, with a mayor who’s racist and anti-immigrant.”
Shabana, like many others who spoke, noted that many of the schools slated to close include large numbers of minorities and English language learners.
“Our graduation rate is not 60 percent, as you say — that is our four-year graduation rate,” said Georgia Lignou, a history teacher at Bryant High School. “A lot of our students are [English as a Second Language] students who need an extra year to graduate.”
Just before panel members voted on the school closures, they voted on Fedkowskyj’s resolution to abandon the turnaround model. The resolution failed by the same vote, 8-4.
Fedkowskyj, a vocal critic of the closures, argued the schools should be able to continue the federal programs that began this year. Additionally, he said the turnaround model could prove to be very expensive if half of the teachers at each of the schools are replaced. The replaced educators are not fired, but are placed into what is known as the “absent teacher reserve,” and continue to receive an annual salary.
Walcott said half of the educators at the schools do not need to be replaced — though Fedkowskyj said the principals may want to axe half the teachers because the school would then be eligible for up to $2 million in federal funding for each year that the federal program runs at the school. The principal and representatives from the teachers’ union and city DOE will sit on a panel that will decide which of a school’s educators will be rehired. Every teacher at the closing schools will have to reapply for their jobs.
“We are not sticking to a hard 50 percent,” Walcott said. “We can go above 50 percent.
“Dollars would be nice, but that’s not the ultimate goal,” Walcott continued.
Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee and a consistent critic of the mayor’s educational policies, echoed Fedkowskyj’s concerns.
“This is an extreme measure, and it’s not clear we’ll get federal funding,” Sullivan said. “We would lose up to 50 percent of teachers, and what evidence do we have that this is the right policy?”
Deputy Schools Chancellor Marc Sternberg said they have implemented the turnaround model at about 10 schools during the past decade.
“These are strategies that we know work,” Sternberg said. “This is a process to tap talented educators. This is an opportunity to introduce new programming.”