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Queens Chronicle

Van Buren principal keeps his promises

HS once in danger of receivership or closing is making its way back

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Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2018 10:30 am

The crowd gathered outside Martin Van Buren High School last Friday was on hand to mark what people hope will be a turning point in the long-struggling school’s road back.

And while elected officials and others were celebrating last fall’s decision by the state to finally remove Van Buren from its list of schools in danger of a state-imposed takeover, Principal Sam Sochet typically wanted to talk about the work of his students, who the next day would be at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC to protest gun violence.

He praising his student leadership team for organizing the trip and even creating hooded sweatshirts that Van Buren kids would wear to the march and present to their fellow students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed in a gun massacre on Feb. 14.

When he did address the turnaround, Sochet, who vowed to restore the school to its former pre-eminence when he took over six years ago, spread the credit.

“It wasn’t just us,” he said. “It was our staff and students and community support.”

The main entrance, where Friday’s brief ceremony took place, was architecturally designed to command attention from the Hillside Avenue community with its glass, steel, neat lines and impressive height and a massive clock on the eastern end of the facade.

There were two problems — the clock had not worked for decades, and the school, which once produced artists, entertainers and a pair of Nobel Prize recipients, had suffered from more than a decade of neglect.

Then Sochet took over as principal, and let both the community and folks at the Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan — Department of Education headquarters headquarters — know that he had no intention of having it shut down on his watch.

Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens) was one of the speakers on Friday along with Assembly members David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) and Clyde Vanel (D-Queens Village). He was deputy borough president when Sochet took over in 2012, and asked his longtime friend how he could help.

The conversation eventually came around to the clock, which had been broken as long as Grodenchik could remember.

“I asked a friend of mine who had lived there for a long time,” Grodenchik said last Friday. “She told me it had not worked in the 32 years she had been here. It says a lot when a school can’t even get the city to fix a clock. I think this clock is a good metaphor for the school.

“When Sam took over, they had a 45 percent graduation rate. Last year is was 68 percent, and this year, when the mayor came for a visit, he promised it will be 70 percent by graduation this June.”

Camille Toma, an English teacher, also spoke at Friday’s ceremony. She has been at Van Buren for 19 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes at this school since 1999,” she said with pride.

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