At Murry Bergtraum HS, fights and frustration mark year's start

At one of the few remaining comprehensive high schools in the city, the year has gotten off to a rocky start with low teacher confidence in the principal, incomplete teacher and student schedules, and student fights on the first day of school.

Two significant fights broke out on Monday at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, Department of Education officials said today, confirming reports from faculty and staff who said the downtown Manhattan school bordered on chaos as students returned from summer vacation.

Murry Bergtraum, which received one of the lowest grades in the city on its most recent progress report, saw a major brawl in April and a riot over bathroom rights in 2010, had students arrested for attempted arson last October, and enrolled nearly half its population as “super seniors” three years ago. But despite a new “school within a school” for some strong students and a series of vaunted principals, including one “executive principal” who received a hefty bonus to turn the school around but left before her contract ended, conditions appear to remain grim.

Parents, teachers, and students all rated the school far below the citywide average on four categories, including safety and academic expectations, according to survey results that the Department of Education released last week. Most teachers think the current principal, Lottie Almonte, is not an effective manager and do not trust her, according to the survey, and fewer than half say they feel respected. (Almonte did not respond to requests for comment.)

Fifty-one of about 130 faculty and staff members left the school over the summer, according to John Elfrank-Dana, the school’s union chapter leader who has repeatedly tried to raise the alarm about the school. He said the turnover had added to sweeping confusion about what classes teachers are teaching, what classes students are taking, and where and when classes are being held.

“They put a teacher who left last year on my schedule, and I’m in a tech room when I’m supposed to have math,” one student said. “I had to sit in the tech room and miss my class because they didn’t know what to do with me.”

Teachers did not have complete instructions about their teaching schedules last week, during the preparation days the city set aside for them, several said. On Monday, Elfrank-Dana said he finally learned what he would be teaching — but it included seven classes in six periods, including teaching global studies and U.S. history at the same time.

Mildred Griffin said she was assigned to teach earth science after years of teaching biology classes. “Here’s living, here’s non-living. You might as well give me Greek,” she said, adding that her knowledge was limited to three credits of geology taken years ago.

The programming issues even extended to the elite Syracuse Academy, which was created to offer college-level courses to a select group of 30 ninth-graders. “Some kids don’t have science. No one was programmed for lunch. We just put them in a classroom,” said one teacher from the program. “Luckily they aren’t lost in the shuffle.”

And Donald Campbell, a math teacher, said instructions about what and where he would teach changed several times in the last week and that during his second-period class, students arrived for two other classes also slated for the same room. He said he worried that the programming challenges, which can be common at large schools, represented deeper problems.

“I know they’ll get the programs straight eventually,” Campbell said. “We just got off to such a poor start. … This just doesn’t set the right tone for the year.”

The fights came as the city opened a new school, with a landscaping focus, in the building. Next year, the city wants to add another school, an elementary Success Academy charter school, to the building while shrinking Bergtraum’s enrollment.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

This story was corrected to reflect the subject that Mildred Griffin was assigned to teach this year. It is earth science, not Living Environment.