The feeling at two Queens high schools Tuesday evening was as much pep rally as protest during public hearings about the city’s plans to close the schools in June.
The city wants to close and reopen the schools, Long Island City High School and Newtown High School, under the federally prescribed reform process known as “turnaround.” The process would require many teachers to be replaced, a prospect that students said has induced anxiety about what classes and clubs would be offered next year.
Students and teachers said unique elective and extracurricular options that currently exist — including boys gymnastics, robotics, and guitar — are a large part of what makes the schools special. They urged the Department of Education to preserve those features and revert to other improvement plans that would cause less disruption.
At a third school whose turnaround hearing took place last night, John Dewey High School, students and teachers have been mounting a vigorous defense since January, when the turnaround plans were announced. The three schools are among 26 whose turnaround proposals are likely to be approved when the Panel for Educational Policy votes on them next week.
Newtown High School
The crowd at Newtown gave forth whoops and cheers for every teacher who spoke, for every mention of the school’s winning robotics team, and for every nod to longstanding principal – and Newtown alum – John Ficalora.
But before there was cheer, there was tension when a top Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner, had not shown up 20 minutes after the meeting was supposed to begin. At 6:20 p.m., with Weiner an estimated 20 minutes away, Jesse Mojica, the Department of Education’s executive director for Family and Community Engagement, tried to start the meeting without him.
That decision didn’t sit well with the hundreds of students, parents, and teachers crowded into the school’s auditorium. Washington Sanchez, a Queens Borough United Federation of Teachers representative, rushed to a microphone that had been set up in the audience.
“How can we conduct this meeting without a representative from the chancellor’s office?” he asked?
The audience screamed in support, chanting, “We want Weiner!” until Mojica acquiesced and postponed the meeting.
The crowd did not quiet down even after Weiner arrived, shouting over his opening statement about how the school’s report card grade (C) and graduation rate (62.4 percent) were not satisfactory. In testimony, teachers and staff members who have been invested in the school for decades defended the school alongside students who have been in this country for mere months.
They all said the school had improved under a short-lived reform effort, “restart,” that paired the school with a nonprofit partner this year. They also pointed to dedicated teachers, Ficalora’s leadership, and Newtown’s culturally diverse community of students as strong assets.
But they said having immigrant students from all over the world has also made it difficult to meet the city’s expectations.
“How do you expect students who never heard any English words to graduate in four years?” asked Jiawen Shen, a junior who immigrated from China two and a half years ago and now has had teachers dedicate hours of their free time to help her perfect her college essay and work through trying math problems.
“How is a school like this called ineffective?” she asked.
“We’re serving the students of Corona. It’s the most ethnically diverse community in the world. It’s not their fault and it’s not our fault,” said Shara Berkowitz, who has taught English as a Second Language at Newtown for 18 years.
Prior to the event, as a small crowd gathered outside of the school to listen to student guitarists perform, Berkowitz said that she was uncertain about what the future would hold for her students and her school.
“I have students walking in every single day from their country. We accept everybody. Will a new school accept everybody?” she asked. (The Department of Education has said that the replacement schools would enroll the same students under turnaround.)
Xiaoyu Zhou immigrated from China five months ago and has worked closely with Berkowitz to learn English. Now, he told me, his English has greatly improved because of his teacher’s efforts and he is no longer afraid of making mistakes. He said he wonders how his teachers would be judged good or bad when the school decides which of them to rehire.
Shen said rumors have been going around about art and music classes being cut to make way for double periods of math and English next year. Last year by this time, Shen said she knew her class schedule for the fall. This year, that’s not a possibility.
Long Island City High School
Students at LICHS also had next year’s classes and clubs foremost on their minds.
During four hours of testimony, dozens of college-bound seniors and recent graduates told Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky and other Department of Education officials that LICHS teachers had inspired them to take Advanced Placement classes and participate in an array of electives, clubs, and sports, from boys gymnastics to culinary arts.
Fotini Dimopoulos, a junior, said she especially values drama club, a dance team, and a leadership class that organizes community service opportunities for students. The class also designed and distributed the T-shirts that most audience members were wearing Tuesday evening, which read “I am L.I.C.” and “We Can, We Will Save Long Island City High School.”
“If you guys close us down, it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to have all these things back,” Dimopoulos said. “Next year’s going to be horrible. I have to apply for colleges and get recommendation letters. If I’m not going to have the same teachers we have now, what’s going to happen?”
Several students and alumni teared up as they described the mentoring and encouragement they received while on the boys gymnastics team and other sports teams, and two performed impromptu backflips at the front of the auditorium before testifying. They reasoned that those programs would not be able to exist without the leadership of Ken Achiron, the gymnastics coach and union representative, and many other teachers who supervise the extracurricular activities.
Polakow-Suransky told the audience that the city would not be eliminating any of the school’s electives or extracurricular programs.
“Anyone who’s telling you that there might not be those programs available is not telling you the truth,” he said.
What the department is trying to do, Polakow-Suransky said, is jolt the school out of lagging performance. Citing the school’s lackluster attendance rate — 80.8 percent — and two consecutive progress report C grades, he said the city believes improvement requires a deep intervention such as turnaround, which would overhaul the staff and infuse the school with several million dollars in federal improvement funds.
Until January, LICHS was receiving federal funding to undergo transformation, a less aggressive federally prescribed reform effort. As at other schools cut off from the federal funds because of a city-union dispute over teacher evaluations, the protesters said the transformation had brought about positive changes. If the school had been allowed to complete the three-year program, they argued, then LICHS’s student performance data would have risen to meet the city’s expectations. Its four-year graduation rate already jumped from 56 percent to 66 percent, several points above the city average, over the past two years.
As the hearing wound down, Polakow-Suransky told the 50 or so remaining protesters that he found their testimonies powerful. He said he would report back to Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the sense of “tremendous, love, respect, and pride … and family” evinced at the hearing, adding, “That sense of history and identity fairly came through this evening.”
Vivian Selenikas, the proposed new school leader, sat quietly in the audience beside the current principal, Maria Mamo-Vacacela, who wore a white “I Am L.I.C.” shirt. Mamo-Vacacela took over only in 2010 when the city was required to remove William Bassell, in charge since 1993, under the transformation rules. The city would not have to replace her under turnaround. But her leadership has been dotted with hiccups, including a massive scheduling debacle earlier this year.
Several teachers who spoke at the hearing said Selenikas had already met with teachers and told them she was pleased with their work. She declined to speak with GothamSchools at the hearing.