February 21, 2013
A citywide sprint through dozens of public hearings about the Department of Education’s plans to close, open, and move schools this year continued on Wednesday with spirited meetings at multiple schools.
At M.S. 45 in East Harlem, which the city wants to close at the end of the year, supporters said the school was on the verge of turning around after years of poor leadership. Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, on the chopping block for the second time in a year, got praise for serving its many immigrant students. And at the Tilden Campus, also in Brooklyn, students and teachers argued that three schools’ success could be undone if a new charter school moves into the building.
The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools. The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the plans March 11.
Frustrations ran high at M.S. 45 S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy as community members pleaded with city officials to allow the school’s current principal more time to continue making improvements.
“Give her a chance. Give her a chance,” many in the crowd clapped and chanted, as officials tried to end the hearing about the the city’s plan to close the school in June. The 50 students, parents, graduates, teachers, and community members who gathered at the East Harlem school were referring to Alexa Sorden, who took over as interim acting principal in September.
“This year feels like no other year,” said Radames Vasquez, a student in his third year at M.S. 45. “When Ms. Sorden came in the school this year, there was a whole lot of garbage from last year and she cleaned up the garbage real fast.”
Sorden replaced Tomasz Grabski, who was assigned to S.T.A.R.S. Academy in the fall of 2010 after leaving his previous school amid parent protests.
According to a 2010 New York Times article, Grabski resigned from Muscota New School in Inwood after parents accused him of being ineffective and petitioned the city for his removal. Parents at S.T.A.R.S. said he carried his ineptitude with him to M.S. 45. They said he would lock himself in his office, allowing students to roam the halls and be disruptive.
“I don’t understand how it is that you, the DOE, knew we were a failing school, yet you put a failing principal in our school,” said Providencia Padilla, parent association president and an M.S. 45 alum.
But Marc Sternberg, the department official in charge of closing and opening schools, said enrollment and performance were so low at S.T.A.R.S. Academy that it should close at the end of the year. In its place, the city has proposed allowing Harlem Village Academy Leadership, which already shares the building on First Avenue and 120th Street, to expand.
Enrollment at S.T.A.R.S has gradually declined from 306 sixth through eighth graders two years ago to 142 students today. Nearly a quarter of students are English language learners, and a fifth require special education services.
Sternberg said while the school may receive many applications, only a small percentage of applicants placed M.S. 45 as their first choice.
Still, the school has committed supporters. Eighth-grader Kweisi Mullings took a few moments to gather courage before addressing the audience and panel, which included Monica Cofield, the head of the school’s support network, and Senior Supervising Superintendent Donald Conyers.
“Please do not close our school down,” Mullings read from his mobile phone. “Give us a chance.”
Sheepshead Bay High School
As evidence that her school is doing a good job, despite its lagging scores, Sheepshead Bay’s current student government vice president offered up herself as Exhibit A.
“I came here as a foreigner, knew very little English, knew very little about this country, and Sheepshead nurtured me,” said senior Asma Begum, reading from her notes. “Now I’m in AP English class and I’m very proud of myself.”
English Language Learners make up 25 percent of the students at Sheepshead Bay, which the Department of Education has proposed phasing out and replacing with smaller schools. Over 100 current and former students, parents, and teachers joined department officials and the District 22 Community Education Council for a hearing about the closure plan on Wednesday evening.
“Please don’t close the school,” said Begum, who kicked off the public comment portion of the hearing. “If we are given the proper amount of time, we can improve.”
The city has proposed opening four high schools in the building as Sheepshead Bay phases out. The schools include a four-year high school and transfer high school operated by the Department of Education and two charter high schools operated by the nonprofit New Visions.
Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the city’s decision to close Sheepshead Bay was based on its poor performance. The school’s four-year graduation rate is 51 percent, lower than the city average of 65.5 percent. Sheepshead Bay has also been identified among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state by the New York State Education Department.
It is also one of several schools that the city is trying to close for a second time. Last year, it was one of 24 schools slated for a form of closure called “turnaround” until a judge upheld a labor ruling that turnaround violated the city’s agreement with the teachers union.
An explanation for the school’s struggles came in the night’s most common refrain, offered by scheduled speakers and by members of the audience in spontaneous outbursts, “Sheepshead Bay takes everybody!” The school does not screen its students and has many students with disabilities, as well as English language learners.
“We are proud to have the underperformers in our school community,” said Maribel Pena, president of the parent teacher association.
Jay Appelblatt, an alumnus who has taught social studies at the school for 13 years, said the students’ many challenges made it hard for the school to raise its graduation rate. “When a kid gets here from Uzbekistan, not speaking one word of English, they’re not getting out of here in four years,” he said.
That’s not to say that teachers don’t try to pull students along, said senior Presley Guobadia.
“She grabs me and she walks me to class. She’s like a second mother to me,” Guobadia said of guidance counselor Sherry Satchell,
“And we have a lot of people here that are working just as hard, if not harder, to try to ensure these children get to where they need to go,” Satchell said. “We are not failures. These children are not failures.”
Principal John O’Mahoney, who was fined last year for violating city ethics rules, was silent during the hearing while sitting to Grimm’s right. He declined to comment for this article.
–Andres David Lopez
Tilden High School
Community leaders including City Councilman Jumaane Williams turned out at a third hearing held on Wednesday, even though no school was up for closure.
That no school is closing on the Tilden Campus is precisely the reason that the New American Academy Charter School should not move in, as the department has proposed, said Eric Waterman. Waterman, who is parent coordinator at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, previewed the hearing in an interview with GothamSchools.
If a school were phasing out, there might be room for the charter school, Waterman said, but as it stands, all three high schools in the building are in good standing, and all would have to make sacrifices to accommodate yet another neighbor.
Kurt Hahn could lose seven classrooms under the department’s proposal, meaning that teachers would no longer have their own classrooms and the arts and culinary offerings could be at risk, he said. The two other schools in the building — It Takes A Village Academy and the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences — would also have to trim their offerings, he said.
Waterman said students were motivated to speak out at the closure hearing because they had not yet had a chance to voice their opinions about the proposed changes.
“This proposal was proposed and will probably be implemented without the community’s input. It’s something that the DOE has forced on our environment,” Waterman said.
Plus, he noted, while the city says the neighborhood needs stronger elementary schools, the charter school is a replica of a district-run school whose students have not yet taken any state tests.
“You can’t say you’re bringing in high quality when you haven’t rated it high quality yet,” Waterman said. “We’re smarter than that.”