City withdraws "turnaround" plans at two high-profile high schools

When the Panel for Educational Policy meets tonight to consider dozens of proposals for school “turnaround,” two high schools with a host of a heavyweight supporters won’t be on the agenda.

Bushwick Community High School and Grover Cleveland High School were among 26 schools that the department had proposed to close and reopen — with new names and new teachers — in an attempt to win federal school reform funds.

Department officials had said the schools needed radical interventions to help them improve. But today the officials said they had determined after listening to public comment and reviewing performance data that Bushwick and Cleveland didn’t need major changes after all.

The schools “have demonstrated an ability to continue their improvements without the more comprehensive actions that are clearly needed at 24 other schools,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a statement.

The about-face comes weeks after the department yanked seven top-rated schools from the turnaround list and just hours before the panel’s scheduled vote. It also comes after the schools received intense political and community support and, in the case of Bushwick, media attention.

Elected officials in Brooklyn turned out in force to support Bushwick, and the New York Times columnist Michael Powell championed the transfer high school. State officials said the school had been snagged unfairly in an accountability dragnet, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn signed on to the cause in a series of behind-the-scenes phone calls. Even a top department official signaled confidence in the school last week.

In Queens, elected officials had thrown their support behind all eight high schools on the turnaround roster. But Cleveland got extra attention from State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chair of the Assembly’s education committee, who graduated from the school in 1976.

City officials said the decision about which schools to remove from the list was not politically motivated. Instead, they said, Bushwick and Cleveland had each received B grades on recent progress reports and ratings of “proficient” on a different measure of school capacity. A third school with those statistics, J.H.S. 80 in the Bronx, will remain on the turnaround list because its performance has been slipping, officials said.

The eleventh-hour reprieves echoes a similar move in February, when the department withdrew proposals to shrink or close two of 25 schools on the chopping block. One of those schools had received intense support from Harlem politicians.

Bushwick principal Tira Randall said Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, who had praised the transfer high school during its public hearing last week, called her at home early this morning to let her know the good news.

“The staff and students are so excited. I’m just delighted,” she said. “My assistant put it so eloquently this way: ‘We’re really thankful for this opportunity to turn around without closing.’ … The disruption in the continuity of services that we provide would have probably had some devastating effects on the school.”

But she said the school would not rest on its laurels. “In realizing that we’ve been given this reprieve we realize there is work that remains to be done,” she said.

Randall attributed the decision to the outpouring of support from politicians and and the press. “My gut told me that with all the support clearly the DOE would take a second look,” she said.

At Cleveland, Principal Denise Vittor hadn’t gotten word about the department’s decision shortly after 9 a.m. Reached in her office, Vittor said she and her staff were nervously gearing up for a long evening at the PEP meeting, where students and teachers planned to offer public testimony against the plans. “I was very doom and gloom today, so I hope it’s true,” she said.

When official word came from the just before 10 a.m., assistant principals and teachers heard clapping and cheers from her office.

Cleveland science teacher Russ Nitchman said he was relieved to hear the news but said the school has suffered after months of uncertainty about its future. Cleveland was supposed to undergo the “restart” school reform model and get close to $1.5 million in federal grant money this year. But that option was taken off the table and replaced with the more aggressive reform strategy in January after teacher evaluation talks between the city and UFT fell apart.

“It’s great they’re taking it off the list, but the bottom-line truth is the damage has already been done to a school when you’ve been through this much stuff. It’s been distracting our students from learning,” Nitchman said. “What we’re doing at the school next year will be the same whether it’s turnaround or not turnaround. We have our game plan.”

Nitchman said some teachers would lament the missed opportunity to receive extra federal funding, but the tradeoff would be worth it.

“Having less money hurts, but keeping our staff — which is an excellent staff — is probably more important,” he said.

Randall also said the reprieve was worth the loss of federal funding, which the school began receiving last year under the “transformation” model. “You can’t attach a dollar figure to the work that the staff puts in here,” she said.

Nitchman said he had been planning to attend the PEP hearing tonight and might still go to support the other schools. But he and many other teachers and students at Cleveland, he said, have already shared their concerns with city officials during a spring packed with protests.

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative to the Panel for Educational Policy who has proposed a resolution against turnaround that is also on tonight’s agenda, said he was thrilled by the news but would not let it overshadow his support of the seven other Queens schools that remain on the list.

“It hasn’t been explained to me why it came off the list,” said Fedkowskyj, who graduated from Cleveland in 1984. “We still have seven fights to make tonight.”