April 19, 2012
The Department of Education isn’t paying attention to recent improvements at the school it has proposed for “turnaround,” teachers and students said at two of the schools Wednesday evening.
At Flushing High School, teachers said during a public hearing about the turnaround plan that a recent leadership change had created conditions for success — and that any consideration of the school’s performance should taken into account its large immigrant population. At the Bronx High School of Business, teachers said the staff had been overhauled this year but hadn’t yet had a chance to demonstrated success.
The city has been holding public hearings about the turnarounds, which would require schools to be closed and reopened after replacing many teachers, since late last month. The final two hearings are tonight, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the 26 total proposals next week. It has never rejected a city proposal.
Flushing High School
According to the dozens of students and teachers who testified at Wednesday night’s closure hearing, Flushing High School is on the upswing after suffering from years of poor leadership and budget cuts.
More than 100 protesters of the city’s plan to close the school using the turnaround model struck a tone of optimism and passion as they sat in the Flushing auditorium, wearing red T-shirts and, in some cases, glittery horns to represent the school’s mascot, the Red Devils. A group of sophomores from a band class drummed forcefully on plastic tubs before city officials began the hearing, chanting, “Save our school.”
Deputy Chancellor David Weiner cited the school’s low four-year graduation rate — 60 percent for the past two years — as the main reason the Department of Education believes Flushing would benefit from turnaround. As he spoke, teachers and parents in the audience sporadically shouted over him. “Nobody wants this!” one called. “Fix truancy,” another shouted. A third person yelled, “They’re not English-speaking,” referring to Flushing’s large number of English Language Learners. Of Flushing’s 3,075 students, 618 are ELLs.
Jenny Chen, a Chinese teacher, said the school’s performance only appears to be lagging because many students arrive needing more than four years of English as a second language instruction to reach proficiency.
“Most of my students sitting in the audience are seniors. Three years ago when they left their motherland to start a new life at Flushing High School they barely spoke any English,” Chen said in her testimony. “To my mind, their achievements are more significant than those from Stuyvesant High School who will attend a prestigious college because our students’ social and economic background is extremely disadvantaged.”
Other people who testified said another factor out of teachers’ and students’ control — the school’s leadership — had led to poor performance.
Laura Spadacini, a long-time assistant principal at Flushing, said Cornelia Gutwein, the principal from 1997 to 2010, had made little effort to graduate students in four years and employed administrators who were unfamiliar with graduation requirements or student transcripts.
“The former principal here paid no attention to the graduation rate. You are holding us responsible for the mistakes that were made over the course of years,” she said. “We’re finally given an opportunity to move forward and the DOE decides to close us down.”
Spadacini also said Principal Carl Hudson, until last year a teacher at Flushing, had improved upon the previous administration but got only eight months to prove himself. The city already invited teachers and families to a “meet and greet” with the educator slated to replace him, Magdalen Radovich, now an assistant principal at another Queens school.
“We have a law program, an enterprise program, all cited in the [the city's Education Impact Statement], and the kids are moving forward with these programs,” Spadacini added in an interview. “If we could expand what’s happening there to the rest of the building, there’s no need to close the school.”
Bronx High School of Business
Unlike at Flushing and other school turnaround hearings where droves of students and teachers have banded together in protest, things were quiet at the Bronx High School of Business.
No more than 40 students, parents, and teachers attended a public hearing about the small high school’s proposed turnaround, and their mood reflected resignation rather than resistance. Still, the school’s supporters said positive changes were underway and should be given a chance to boost the school’s performance.
Department of Education deputy chancellor Laura Rodriguez explained the department’s rationale in at a meeting held in the large auditorium of the Taft Educational Complex, which houses four different high schools. “By closing and replacing the Bronx High School of Business, we are seeking to rapidly create a school environment that will prepare students for college and life,” Rodriguez said.
The school landed on the state’s “Persistently Low-Achieving” schools list last year. As a result, last September it received a federal grant to undergo “restart,” and founding Principal Enrique Lizardi brought in a number of new expert teachers to teach English and special education. (Lizardi resigned last month; he would not be allowed to stay on under the rules of turnaround.)
Those teachers have not yet had a chance to show results, the school’s supporters said, since the decision to close the school was coming before students would take this year’s Regents exams. The teachers have not even served out a full year before the department decided to replace the school, they said.
“They’re not letting us continue the work we were doing with these kids,” said Elizabeth Solis, a teacher brought in under the restart model who is also the school’s union chapter leader. “The kids are sad, confused and upset but they feel powerless. The closing of the Bronx High School of Business is not about the children.”
Few students spoke at the hearing, but those who did said they were disappointed in the message the closure plan was sending. Rashid Gladden, a soft-spoken sophomore, said, “By shutting down this high school, you’ll hurt students. My teachers taught me to become a better leader and persevere.”
Sarah Tan, who covered the Bronx High School of Business hearing, is a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school