Jamaica High School is a magnificent building — a beacon on a hill that stands out in a distinctly middle-class neighborhood in Queens. It is majestic and elegant — a literal landmark that exudes history.
Walk the halls and you will see black and white pictures of tweed-suited principals. You can see one of them appearing on “Open End” with David Susskind, discussing some important issue or other. When was the last time you saw a high school principal interviewed on a news show?
Walk further and you will see photos of the doughboys who died in World War I. This one died of malaria. That one perished from pneumonia. Then comes the World War II vets. They’ve all passed through these halls, and why not? Jamaica High School has been an integral part of the community for 118 years.
Alas, Chancellor Joel Klein has passed a writ of execution on Jamaica High School, threatening an abrupt halt to its rich history. The primary reason given is that Jamaica has a graduation rate of less than 50%. But the Chancellor’s statistics are wrong. This is not surprising because the school operates with a secretarial staff slashed from 13 to 5, insufficient guidance personnel and a relatively new principal. After the Chancellor issued his death sentence, a careful review of the graduation data revealed that 258 of fewer than 500 seniors graduated in 2009, which is clearly over 50%.
Jamaica’s four-year graduation rate was 38% in 2005, 42% in 2006, 52% in 2007, and 53% in 2008. This is real progress. Last month, Chancellor Klein celebrated the city’s 14% gain in math NAEP scores from 2003-2009 as a tremendous success. Why on earth, then, is Jamaica’s four-year 15% rate gain, marginally outpacing the Chancellor’s own progress, not also a tremendous success?
The Chancellor’s assertion that only one in four Jamaica students receives a Regents Diploma is also inaccurate. In 2009, Jamaica had 143 Regents Diplomas, 35 Advanced Regents Diplomas and 4 Advanced Regents Diplomas with Honors. That adds up to 182-well above 25%, and a 13% increase from the 159 in 2008.
Another reason cited for Jamaica’s closure is declining enrollment. Jamaica is just beginning to recover from the stigma created when the Department of Education labeled the school “persistently dangerous” after a previous principal insisted on reporting even the most minor of incidents. Enrollments have actually leveled off and are starting to go up. They would rise much more rapidly if Jamaica received proper support.
If Jamaica High School dies, money will be lavished on new schools that will take years to grow. These schools will likely turn away the non-traditional “over the counter” pupils that Jamaica accepts. 330 students registered “over the counter” so far this fall (well over the 273 that enrolled over the Fall 08 semester). Many came from other states and other countries. Where will these students go next year? These are precisely the students new schools tend to shun.
Queens Collegiate, a new small school started in 2008 within Jamaica’s facility, has only 6 English language learners and zero most restricted environment special education students. Jamaica High School has 170 in special education, 259 English language learners and 71 students with interrupted formal education. Similar pupils will more than likely go to neighboring comprehensive high schools in Queens next year, despite the fact there’s virtually no space for them.
On December 16th, Chancellor Klein sent Debra Kurshan, head of the DoE’s Office of Portfolio Planning, to a public meeting at Jamaica. Ms. Kurshan assured the outraged crowd that the closure of Jamaica was not a done deal. It was just a proposal that required approval from the Panel for Educational Policy before it could be finalized. Ms. Kurshan made this statement without a hint of irony.
Up to now, the PEP has never rejected any request by the Mayor or the Chancellor. We pin our hopes on the possibility that the Mayor, the Chancellor, or the panel itself will consider all the negative consequences of closing this historic school. Jamaica High School has long been a cornerstone of the community.
It would be an egregious error to close Jamaica High School, particularly since the decision relies on blatantly inaccurate data. Its demise would cause irreparable damage not only to the Jamaica community, but to surrounding neighborhoods as well. The fall of this once-proud school would cause a chain reaction, damaging other high schools in nearby neighborhoods. The closing of the school would be a failure for the Department of Education, which has no strategy to help struggling schools.
Let’s stop destroying neighborhood schools, and begin working to fix them.
James Eterno is the UFT chapter leader at Jamaica High School. Arthur Goldstein is the UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School and a regular contributor to the GothamSchools community section.