December 20, 2011
It was still dark this morning when Steve Morris rolled up in front of Washington Irving High School on his bike.
Morris had been the school’s librarian until last summer, when the struggling school cut him from its staff roster and shuttered the library. Now he was on his way to the Brandeis High School building as a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of position-less teachers who are shuffled to a different school each week.
But first he wanted to offer silent support to his former students and colleagues who, along with parents and union officials, had filled Irving’s front steps to protest the Department of Education’s plan to close the school.
“I’ll be the last librarian this school ever has,” Morris told me wistfully before pedaling north on Irving Place.
Irving is one of 25 schools the city has proposed closing or shrinking this year. The century-old high school near Union Square got an F on its most recent progress report, down from C’s in the previous two years.
In a series of spirited chats and statements, the protesters argued that the deck had long been stacked against the school.
They said longstanding academic weaknesses and spurts of violence had been exacerbated as the Bloomberg administration closed other schools and directed needy students to Irving. Then, in 2008, the city spun off Irving’s performing arts program, which teachers said enrolled the school’s highest-performing students, into its own school, Gramercy Arts. Overnight, Irving went from more than 2,400 students to less than 1,700. Since then, enrollment has dropped steadily, taking with it valuable dollars and staff.
Bloomberg “says he wants to open doors, but he’s closing Irving floor by floor,” UFT chapter leader Greg Lundahl led the protesters in chanting. They said the school needs time to adjust to its new reality — and more resources to serve its needy students.
The school received federal “transformation” funds this year but will see those funds directed to new schools in the building if the DOE’s closure plan is approved.
City officials cited the school’s low 4-year graduation rate — 48.2 percent last year and less than 55 percent for the last decade — when announcing their decision to seek closure. They also signaled that they were concerned the school’s leadership would not be able to pull off the turnaround.
But teachers said if the school were evaluated on the basis of students who actually attend, Irving would post a graduation rate higher than the city average.
Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher who heads Irving’s School Leadership Team, said there about 100 students enrolled who have never attended and cannot be tracked down. It’s because of the “long-term absences,” she said, that the school’s average daily attendance rate is a paltry 73.8 percent — well below the average high school attendance of 86 percent. That data point pushed the school out of D range.
Burnbaum said she is urging the UFT to seek legislation that would make it easier for schools to track down missing students.
Other teachers said they had taken a more local, faster-acting approach to helping students. They said they worked diligently to serve the students who do come to school, who include many English language learners and students with special needs who travel from other boroughs to attend Irving.
“There isn’t a harder-working staff in the city,” Lundahl told me.
Pearl Dixon, a physical education teacher who graduated from Irving in 1987, told me teachers had analyzed student data and practiced with a new teacher evaluation model, both activities the city has urged.
“Every policy the DOE has put to us, we have worked on,” she said. “We inherited a lot of problems, and there are things we need to work on. …. But [Bloomberg] needs to give us more time.”
Sharon Talbot, an Upper West Side resident, said her son Robert is flourishing as a sophomore in Washington Irving’s special education program after graduating from the Computer School. Talbot is white, unlike the vast majority of Irving students.
“At first I was uneasy,” she told me about her son’s assignment to the school. “But then I saw what was happening here. … What we need is more of what the school already has.”
“I pray to God that this school does not keep cutting back, that the library will reopen,” said Michael de la Cruz during the rally. His son Robert is a sophomore.
As for the library, students say it’s now closed except when teachers bring their classes. Most of the time, books sit behind locked doors and students must spend their lunch periods in the chaotic cafeteria instead of studying, according to Dayla Diaz, a senior.
This morning, Diaz was hanging out in front of the Pure Loyalty cell-phone storage truck across the street, where students drop of their cell phones for $1 a day before passing through the metal detectors at Washington Irving. She said she makes the long trip from the Bronx each day in large part because of the teachers.
“I like the teachers better than most of the students, to be honest,” she said. “You can actually sit down and talk to a teacher, and they’ll try to help you.”
During the rally, which disbanded as the first bell approached this morning, union officials vowed vigorous protests against all of the planned closures, including at schools, such as Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, that the city has proposed only slimming, not closing down.
“We will not stand aside,” said UFT Vice President Leo Casey. “We will be every place this mayor decides he’s going to close down schools.”