school closing season

At three hearings, one idea: City's plans would undo successes

Eighth graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C), along with sixth grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer between testimonies, chanting the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Casey Baker)
M.S. 45 eighth-graders Ciara Shack (L) and Karla Lorenzo (C) and sixth-grader Eliza Fuentes (R) do an impromptu step cheer at a hearing about the school’s proposed closure. They chanted the school’s motto: “M.S. 45 going down the line, we gotta get an education to survive.” (Photo: Carey Reed)

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.

M.S. 45

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.

CAPTION (Photo: Casey Baker)
Interim Acting Principal Alexa Sorden listens to supporters of M.S. 45 argue for the school’s future. (Photo: Carey Reed)

“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.”

–Carey Reed

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.

CAPTION (Photo: Andres David Lopez)
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm explains the city’s plan to close Sheepshead Bay High School at a hearing about the proposal. (Photo: Andres David Lopez)

“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.”

–Philissa Cramer

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news