When public hearings about the city’s plans to “turn around” two large high schools began last night, few of their supporters had heard that other schools had been spared the aggressive reform process.
Herbert H. Lehman High School and Grover Cleveland High School were not among seven top-rated schools that the city announced yesterday would not undergo turnaround after all. The controversial process requires schools to close and reopen with new names and many new teachers.
A third school slated for a public hearing Monday night, Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, had its turnaround plans withdrawn. But at Lehman and Cleveland, the hearings went on without interruption — with students, teachers, and graduates at each offering more than three hours of testimony about their schools.
Diana Rodriguez, the senior class president at Cleveland, saw the surprising news about changes to the turnaround list on her phone during a pre-hearing rally organized by students.
“Obviously Cleveland is not on the list. This is very disappointing for us but we will not give up,” she said. “Tonight we will show that we have a voice and will not give in.”
That voice grew strained over the course of the afternoon and evening from loud chants and cheers. Before the closure hearing, Rodriguez led a band of students — including one dressed in a tiger costume — on a march around the neighborhood. As they passed the Q54 bus on Metropolitan Avenue, the driver honked repeatedly at the procession and other cars joined the chorus. More students joined when the group returned to the school’s entrance on Himrod Street, until the rally swelled to nearly 50.
Then, the students were also joined by several elected officials — including Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Queens PEP representative Dmytro Fedkowskyj, both Grover Cleveland alumni. Fedkowskyj read from a resolution that would halt the turnarounds, which he expects panel members to vote on at the next PEP meeting, and Nolan said she attributed her success to a solid start at Cleveland.
For the main event, more than 250 students, teachers, parents, graduates, and their supporters packed the first floor of the Queens school’s auditorium. They touted the school’s programs and success stories — and warned that those could disappear if the city goes through with its turnaround plans.
“The [Educational Impact Statement] mandates that we continue our programs. But you need the staff for these programs,” said Brian Gavin, a School Leadership Team member and the school’s teachers union representative. “The people make up the school. It’s not just a building. Let’s see what happens if a few people don’t make the cut: If Russell Nitchman goes, there goes Plant Science. … If we never had Mr. Morsi, we would not have the girl’s wrestling team.”
Principal Denise Vittor, who came to Grover Cleveland last year from a stint as principal of Queens Vocational High School, stayed for the hearing but only to listen, at times ushering attendees through the auditorium. Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said the city “is pleased to stand by Ms. Vittor as proposed school leader” of the new school.
As more than 50 people testified, a slideshow played on loop, flashing pictures of students performing in the theater, tending to plants in the nearby greenhouse, and working in a science lab. It also touted elective classes on technology, Shakespeare, and poetry, and depicted past school celebrations, from Spirit Week to a “Bring Back the ’80s Day.”
“During my four years at the school, I have experienced nothing but positive things,” said senior Vashtee Ragoonanan. “Our students and staff should not be held responsible because some students have not performed to the best of their ability.”
Lehman High School
School spirit was a theme at Lehman, too, where the auditorium was packed with student athletes decked in their uniforms, earth science teacher Pamela Myer in the school’s Lion mascot costume, and generations of Lehman students and alumni.
Some of the teachers who spoke shared that a few decades back they were students in the same classrooms they now lead. There was a mother of a current student who also attended Lehman, and in fact, met her husband in Spanish class. She and her daughter, who spoke after her, lauded the school for the educational opportunities it offered then and now. A graduate who is now a member of Community Board 10 returned to the school after twenty years to pay homage to his alma mater. He pointed to the stage behind the dais of School Leadership Team members and education department representatives and said, “I got my start on that stage.”
But speakers at Lehman’s hearing also dwelled on the school’s lagging performance — it received an F on its most recent city progress report — and pointed to issues they said had contributed to it.
Even after Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky assured the audience that the new school would evaluate teachers individually and not try to meet the 50 percent replacement quota set in the federal guidelines for turnaround, many speakers questioned why teachers were bearing any blame for the school’s lagging performance at all.
David Solomon, who has taught physical education at Lehman for 31 years, told me that the student population has ballooned to unmanageable numbers in recent years.
A parent who pressed the city for proof that replacement teachers would be better than Lehman’s current teachers also asked whether the new crop of educators would “wave a magic wand” to make students who don’t coming to school or strive to achieve suddenly change their ways.
A music teacher, David Rose, was one of a number of speakers who suggested that the school’s former principal, Janet Saraceno, had thrown the school off track. Saraceno was removed in 2011 for illicitly changing student test scores after an investigation that was launched following a GothamSchools report.
“Even the last principal — who did such wonderful things for the school — has a job with the DOE,” Rose said, his voice laced with sarcasm. “She gets to stay, all the DOE people get to stay,” he later told me. “It’s the teachers they’re taking it out on.”
Anne Looser, who has taught at Lehman for five years and is the school’s UFT representative, rattled off physical issues in the building that interfere with learning: No lights in room 122, no internet in room 406, uncontrollable heat in room 404. An audience member pitched in to remind her of the roaches and mice.
“We’re not victims, we’re survivors,” Looser said.