November 16, 2011
A year-old Queens high school that expanded to meet community demand is struggling under the weight of its own ambitions.
Located in a suburban section of Queens, Queens Metropolitan High School promised rich course offerings and a rigorous academic program to its 650 ninth- and 10th-grade students. But the ambitious plans left little room for error, and because of staff changes, space issues, and poor planning, Queens Metropolitan students have gotten new schedules as many as 10 times since September.
On Monday, up to three periods of classes were canceled for many 10th-grade students, who sat in the auditorium and cafeteria as administrators feverishly worked to hash out new schedules, according to accounts from parents, students, and staff.
At a PTA meeting Tuesday night, parents also complained that some classes are without teachers, physical education instruction isn’t happening, and that their students aren’t receiving grades for some coursework.
Principal Marci Levy-Maguire told the two dozen parents at the meeting, who included City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, that she is working “night and day” on fixing the schedule debacle.
“Programming has been problematic. I fully admit it. We are continuing to work to address it so students are programmed properly,” Levy-Maguire said. “I can say nothing more than I apologize, and I wish it were different. We are making plans to have this resolved.”
Several teachers who had been assisting with trouble-shooting schedule revisions pulled out of the process on Sunday, saying that they did not want to give up teaching time to complete administrative tasks, according to an email that GothamSchools obtained.
Levy-Maguire said last night that she was getting help from other sources, including her Department of Education network and a programming consultant from outside the school. Later this week, she said, a technology intern would address problems with the school’s scheduling software, BlackBoard. The system recently failed to register changes staff had entered, compounding scheduling woes, Levy-Maguire said.
Levy-Maguire declined a follow-up interview today.
But at the PTA meeting, Levy-Maguire, a graduate of the city’s Leadership Academy for new principals, suggested that her administration was simply in over its head. Under pressure from elected officials and families concerned about crowding elsewhere, the school has enrolled far more students than originally planned.
“We didn’t know how much we needed to plan last year. I had no idea how much we would have to plan as early as February,” she said. “This school feels like a small school to people. But we’re a big school, and we didn’t have the systems in place to run a big school.”
Queens Metropolitan’s size puts it at odds with the vast majority of new high schools opened during the Bloomberg administration. Most new schools are small, with about 100 students and just a handful of teachers in each grade, and one criticism of them has been that they often do not offer the numerous elective and extracurricular options that many large high schools boast (sometimes with scheduling problems of their own). Among her goals in opening Queens Metropolitan, Levy-Maguire has said, was to give students those options in a neighborhood school.
Those options will have to be slimmed down, Levy-Maguire told parents after one mother asked — but did not get an answer to — a question about whether her son would receive credit for the three elective classes he was enrolled in until now.
“Next year will not be the same,” Levy-Maguire said. “I over-burdened the school. I gave your kids lots and lots of choice. I need to limit those choices unfortunately. I cannot offer your kids as many electives this year as I would have hoped to.”
Some of the electives—which include financial literacy, Regents prep in Geometry and Chemistry, and “twenty-first century skills”—could be eliminated by early December, she said.
DOE officials said the scheduling problems, which they promised would be resolved before the start of the next marking period, would not cost students credits or seat time.
Other issues are also in the process of being resolved. One, about teachers’ workloads, is the subject of a union complaint. Evelyn Goldschmidt, the school’s UFT chapter leader, said close to a third of the school’s teachers have filed complaints charging that their packed schedules had them working more time than their contract allows.
In an email to staff on Monday, Levy-Maguire announced that teachers working more than their contractual schedule would be paid overtime. Substitutes might take over some of the elective classes, she said, and members of the Absent Teacher Reserve who rotate through the school each week could supervise others.
And scheduling conflicts between Queens Metropolitan and two other schools in the brand-new building over the gym and locker room have prevented students from having physical education instruction so far this year.
Levy-Maguire confirmed at the meeting that students were not held accountable for PE attendance or participation this marking period because classes could not be held.
“We had to hold kids accountable for something,” she said, so students were graded on a pass-fail basis for handing in required forms and getting their height and weight checked. Those assessments will change once regular P.E. instruction begins after the scheduling conflicts are resolved, she said.
“I have an impression from my son that he has not had one day of gym class,” said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who has two children at the school. “I don’t understand why a person can’t just look at a student and say we have this many teachers, this is the schedule. We could do it by hand.”
Crowley also said her son has complained that no lessons are being taught in chemistry since the teacher left at the end of October. “I’m worried that he’s not meeting basic standards,” she said.
Marc Pagan, whose son is in 10th grade, raised similar concerns about the chemistry class. “I’m hearing the exact same thing from our son,” he sad. “There’s the occasional substitute. [Students] come in with work, and they’re told they don’t have to do any of it. And that’s a Regents class. They’re being set up for disaster.”
Levy-Maguire responded that she is searching diligently for a new chemistry teacher, but the position is tough to fill.
In an email to her staff last week, Levy-Maguire vowed that the school would emerge from the ongoing troubles more organized and prepared to serve its students.
“I know we are becoming a stronger team not because of the challenges we face, but because of how we face them together,” she wrote.