Anxieties grow for some vanishing schools in city’s merger plans

Emotions were raw but attendance was sparse at a school meeting in East Harlem on Tuesday night as city officials moved a step closer to merging two struggling schools with dwindling student enrollments.

The consolidation, which will allow P.S. 96 to absorb students and teachers from Global Neighborhood Secondary School next year, is one of five mergers the city’s education policy panel will vote on this fall. City officials have taken pains to ensure that the plans face minimal resistance, holding meetings with staff and parents at the affected schools as early as June.

So far, that plan has largely worked. But as the process continues — and five schools prepare to no longer exist — the East Harlem meeting hinted at some of the tensions to come, especially in neighborhoods with clear memories of the divisive school-closure policies of the last mayoral administration.

“I don’t understand how they’re closing our school down,” said Yvonne Figueroa, the parent-teacher association president at Global Neighborhood, which opened in 2008 aiming to serve new immigrants. “Why can’t they just leave our school open and make it the new middle school?”

“It feels like our school’s being taken away from us,” said Carole-Ann Moench, who has taught English at Global Neighborhood since 2009.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has presented the mergers as part of her larger school-improvement strategy, with a higher-performing school sometimes absorbing a struggling one in the same building or located nearby. Efficiency is the primary driver of other merger plans, where both schools have posted low reading and math scores for years.

The plans have the official support of the teachers and principals union, local elected parent councils, and school administrations. Even some teachers, like Moench, who have raised concerns at meetings, say they aren’t opposed to the plans.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t see it as a huge shift. “To be honest, it feels like our school’s closing,” she said. “We didn’t have much of a choice in any of this.”

2016-17 merger plans (so far)

  • Crown Heights: M.S. 354 with M.S. 334 (Proposal)
  • East Harlem: The Global Neighborhood Secondary School with P.S. 96 (Proposal)
  • Chinatown: P.S. 137 with P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold (Proposal)
  • Bedford Stuyvesant: J.H.S. 057 with M.S. 385 (Proposal)
  • Throggs Neck (Bronx): Urban Assembly Academy of Civic Engagement with Mott Hall Community School (Proposal)

School closure is a loaded concept in New York City. More than 100 schools were permanently shuttered under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for poor academic performance. He replaced them with new schools, including many charter schools, that usually served new students and were staffed by new principals and teachers.

That strategy sparked lawsuits and protests led by the United Federation of Teachers, as well as many dozens of public hearings packed with teachers, activists, and parents who opposed the closures, some lasting hours into the night.

In his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio vowed not to close any low-performing district schools until they were given more support, a promise he’s so far kept. He also promised that the concerns of parents, teachers, and parent councils would be respected as decisions were made.

Without forceful backlash from unions and parents, officials are now focused on addressing the quieter challenges of unifying (or planning to unify) two teams of teachers and two groups of students.

In some buildings, schools that are merging are already aligned under one principal, bell schedules are synced up, and students from different schools are spending more time together. At two schools set to merge in Crown Heights, M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, a “master principal” has been appointed to help unite the teaching staffs.

In other cases, it could take more work to smooth over differences.

Tanya Castro-Negron, a parent at P.S. 137, an elementary school in Chinatown set to merge with P.S. 134, said tensions have festered since the schools were forced to share a building 10 years ago. P.S. 137 is seen as “the ugly stepchild,” she said.

“There’s so much bad blood,” she added.

In East Harlem, Global Neighborhood moved into the P.S. 96 building this year to prepare for the merger. Frankie Quinones, president of P.S. 96’s PTA, acknowledged that both schools are still adjusting.

“There’s always going to be issues in the beginning,” said Quinones. “But time will tell.”

Some remain unconvinced that a combined school will be greater than the sum of its parts, especially when both schools have struggled to keep up enrollment, as is the case of the mergers in Chinatown’s P.S. 134 and P.S. 137. Both schools saw their test scores increase last year, but P.S. 137’s reading and math proficiency rates topped out at 16 percent.

“You’re taking two failing schools and putting them together,” Castro-Negron said. “How do we know that this is going to be effective?”

In East Harlem, neither Global Neighborhood nor P.S. 96 are part of the Renewal initiative, but both are struggling on several levels.

Proficiency rates on last year’s state English and math tests ranged from 5 percent to 13 percent in the schools, and there are fewer than 300 students enrolled in the schools’ middle school grades. Global Neighborhood had just 26 new sixth graders this year, though the schools still have their own principals and staffers.

Because enrollment largely determines school funding, schools with few students receive less money that is often used for support services for students with disabilities and English language learners. It also makes it harder to pay teachers for elective classes and extracurricular activities. That can create a negative spiral, where enrollment and funding struggles coincide with academic struggles.

The mergers should change those patterns, said Elizabeth Rose, the department’s deputy chancellor of operations.

“It is completely different from a school closure,” Rose said. “In this case, all students and staff will continue to be part of an ongoing, operating school. That’s the most important thing.”

Rose said more 2016-17 mergers would be proposed this winter. The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the Crown Heights and East Harlem mergers on Nov. 19 and on the remaining proposals on Dec. 16.