February 1, 2012
Elected officials who turned out in droves to defend a Harlem school against closure last week stayed home Tuesday night from another century-old Manhattan school also facing the ax.
The city spared Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing Arts from closure in favor of a plan to scrap just its middle school grades, but droves of elected local and state officials and advocacy groups packed the school auditorium in protest anyway during its hearing last week.
There was no such fanfare at Irving, which would phase out completely under the city’s plan, during its closure hearing Tuesday. Instead, just one city councilwoman, Rosie Mendez, joined dozens of Irving teachers, parents, and students in criticizing the Department of Education’s closure proposal.
Over the course of the four-hour-long closure hearing, speaker after speaker explained — as they did during a December rally — that Irving enrolls high-needs, low-income students who are the toughest in the system to serve.
They also said the school’s veteran staff and Principal Bernardo Ascona have remained dedicated to their students despite the school’s uncertain future. This fall, the city reassigned the school from one federally funded improvement model to another, known as “transformation,” then abandoned the plans altogether in December.
A Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city had decided keeping Irving open for at least another three years, as the federal School Improvement Grants program required, would have been a disservice to students. The city plans to open two new schools, including one that focuses on software development, in the building this fall to accompany three small schools already open there.
“It is just not true that if you have high-needs kids you cannot succeed,” Polakow-Suransky said. ”In a school that is struggling, a culture develops that exists in the school that comes from teachers, students, and administration, where the expectation is that students are not able to achieve.”
The suggestion that Irving’s teachers have low expectations for their students prompted teachers in the audience to shout, “That’s not true. We never said that.” Audience members shouted over Polakow-Suransky throughout the meeting, at one point even calling for his resignation.
Students and parents testified that the school had set them on the path to college and that Ascona, who became principal in 2007, was laying a foundation for the school to improve.
“This man has not just been a principal, he’s been a father to some of these kids,” said Gail Wright, whose daughter is a senior. “They’re telling these children that they matter here.”
Devon Phillip, a senior taking classes in the college-prep International Baccalaureate program, said Irving’s teachers helped him improve his writing and speaking skills. “When you close the school, you take that experience away from me,” he said.
Ishmael Green, a senior from Brooklyn who was placed in Irving when he moved to the city for ninth grade, said the school has pushed him toward graduation and college, despite circumstances that led him to finish high school living on his own.
“It’s all thanks to the great teachers,” he said. “Please let them stay here.”
And teachers said the school’s constantly changing status has eroded their faith in the city’s ability to judge the school’s capacity to improve.
“We are asking the DOE to look at the whole picture. Our students need support from teachers, but also from tutors, social workers, mentors, guidance counselors and other professionals because their lives are extremely difficult,” said Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher and School Leadership Team representative. “Our school can improve the performance with the right kind of supports. The transformation model funding was going to do that for us.”