March 1, 2013
The massive auditorium at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers was nearly empty Thursday night when District 2 Superintendent Marisol Bradbury read aloud the Department of Education’s proposal to open a new high school in the lower Manhattan building.
The new school would work with the National Parks Service to offer career training in carpentry, masonry, landscaping, and restoration, Bradbury explained to the handful of adults in the audience. It would open in September with a ninth grade and expand to as many as 500 students over three years, according to the department’s proposal.
At the same time as the new school grows, Murry Bergtraum would lose students. By 2018, the school would have around 450 fewer students than the 1,806 who currently attend.
The proposal would mean a jarring new change for a once-venerable high school whose reputation and performance have plummeted in recent years. But where educators and students at other schools being asked to share space have made concerted efforts to hold on to their classrooms, few at Murry Bergtraum attended the city’s public hearing to comment on the plans.
The sparse attendance at the hearing did not surprise social studies teacher and teachers union chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana, who was not at the hearing himself. “We don’t have any community here,” he said. “When you send high-needs kids across town to school, you don’t have a community.”
Elfrank-Dana was referring to shifts in the school’s enrollment in recent years that have accompanied a rise in discipline issues and the withering of some popular programs. The closure of other large high schools in the area in the early years of the Bloomberg administration meant that many high-need students now end up at Murry Bergtraum, Elfrank-Dana said.
“The mayor turned one of the best high schools in the city into a dumping ground,” Elfrank-Dana said. “That’s been the legacy of the school for the last 10 years.”
In 2010, students rioted in the school after the school’s principal at the time banned bathroom breaks in an effort to cut down on discipline issues. The school received a “D” on its most recent progress report with an “F” in student progress, while only 29 percent of teachers say order and discipline is maintained in the school, according to Department of Education statistics.
Carol Newell, a business teacher at Murry Bergtraum who spoke at the hearing, said her department — once the pride of the school — shrunk from 32 teachers to just seven since 2006. She said students’ greatest need is for social services, a need that became especially acute after Hurricane Sandy.
“How do you make a kid study if he’s going through flux if he can’t figure out anything about his identity?” she asked. “There’s issues at home. How does he make it?”
Parent leaders from the area said their concerns about the department’s plans started at the school level and radiated across the city.
“Why are we developing a new school here to teach landscaping?” asked Paola de Kock, president of Citywide Council of High Schools. She said she wondered why the city did not give Murry Bergtraum some of the $20 million set aside for a new initiative to teach computer science in schools when the high school was one of the first in the city to teach the subject.
De Kock also said she was concerned that the city has moved to close other schools that started out sharing space with new schools, such as Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx.
“What if it’s not the size of the school? What if it’s something else?” asked Shino Tanikawa, president of the District 2 Community Education Council. “I want to understand that.”
Both Tanikawa and de Kock said they were nostalgic for what they described as the pre-Bloomberg glory days at Murry Bergtraum.
“Murry Bergtraum was once one of the best non-specialized high schools in the city,” de Kock said. “I’m not talking about 100 years; I’m not talking about 50 years ago. I’m talking about this school from 1975 when it was founded until the Bloomberg administration.”
Elfrank-Dana said sharing space with another school would be disruptive if not detrimental, but he said he stayed away from the hearing anyway. “I have better things to do than participate in the illusion of due diligence when it comes to alleged transparency and common decision-making,” he said.
The Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board, is set to vote March 11 on the co-location proposal along with a slew of other space-sharing and closure plans. Among the members of the panel, which has never rejected a city proposal, is Judy Bergtraum, the daughter of Murry Bergtraum High School’s namesake.