At most of the public hearings about the city’s plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools, Department of Education representatives have insisted that closing and reopening the schools with new principals and teachers would be in students’ best interest.
That was not the case at Bushwick Community High School Wednesday night.
After hearing dozens of students deliver emotional speeches in defense of the transfer high school, the department’s second-in-command offered a testimonial of his own.
“This is a school that looks at the whole child. This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer.
“I was moved by what you said tonight,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of public hearings and I think it’s a tribute to the educators in this community that students here speak with such passion, with such eloquence, and so thoughtfully about what works.”
It was not the first time that education officials have given students and staff at Bushwick Community hope since the school landed on the turnaround list in January. That month, state officials said they would ask the U.S. Department of Education for permission not to penalize transfer schools for having low graduation rates — an inevitability when students enroll years into their high school careers, already far behind where they should be.
But that permission is not expected for at least another couple of weeks, and it would kick in for future assessments of school performance.
By that point, turnaround could be well underway at Bushwick Community. The school is one of 26 whose turnaround proposals are set to come before the Panel for Educational Policy next week. The panel has never rejected a city proposal brought to vote.
But Polakow-Suransky signaled that the school might not wind up on the panel’s final agenda.
“I want you to know that as I take those stories back I will share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott, who is going to make a decision about whether this school will continue to the panel meeting or not. But I was moved by what you said tonight,” he told the students. A few moments later, he added, “And I do think that whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here.”
One student after another spoke about how abuse, crime, drugs and teenage pregnancies had derailed their academic lives until Bushwick Community put them back on track.
Ricardo Rodriguez, who said he was addicted to drugs and was affiliated with the Bloods gang, enrolled at the school in 2010 as a 17-year-old dropout with so few credits that even other transfer high schools wouldn’t take him. Rodriguez graduated last year and is working as a part-time counselor with the school.
Audrey Rochelle is on track to graduate in June after getting kicked out of her last two high schools for fighting and cutting class. She brought her one-year-old child up to the microphone to explain how the teachers supported her during her pregnancy and pushed her to return when she considered dropping out.
“At this point I just know I want a good job so I can provide for my child,” said Rochelle, who plans to attend LaGuardia Community College and study to be a paramedic.
There was Hector Solo, 21, a former Latin King arrested for robbery and assault in 2009. Only a letter of recommendation from his teachers at Bushwick Community saved him from time in jail. Solo graduated last year and is taking community college classes.
Justin Soto, 21, said he was the “chief of armed robbery” at Broadway Junction, a subway hub in East New York, before he began going to Bushwick. “After this school, it changed my life,” he said.
Bushwick Community is the only transfer school that accepts students regardless of how many credits they have (most transfer schools require a minimum of 10 credits). It is also the only city transfer school where all students are at least 17; other schools take younger students.
That means few students can graduate within the four- or six–year time periods that the federal No Child Left Behind law uses to measure progress in most high schools. As a result, Bushwick Community was listed as a “persistently lowest achieving” school two years ago and became one of 33 schools to receive federal funding as part of the School Improvement Grants program.
But Mayor Bloomberg abandoned those plans in January, and instead opted to pursue turnaround for the schools instead, which requires the schools to be closed. It was bad timing for Bushwick Community, which was working with city and state officials on the waiver application that would ease NCLB’s accountability guidelines for transfer schools.
Supporters of Bushwick Community worry that if the closure plan goes through the replacement school will no longer be able to fully serve the most over-aged and under-credited students in the city. The city has proposed allowing the replacement school to enroll students starting at age 16.
“That is so cynical,” David Donsky, an English teacher, said of the plan. “Because all you’re doing is juking the stats. You’re taking younger kids who are more likely to graduate on time, but you’re not improving academic outcomes.”
In another sign that the city might not be fully decided about Bushwick Community’s fate, eight-year Principal Tira Randall remains in charge. The city has already installed new school leaders at many schools slated for turnaround whose principals would have to be removed under the federal government’s rules. Randall has been told she will have to leave at the end of the year if turnaround proceeds, teachers said. They also reported that another administrator who had started working at the school this year, an appointee of the school’s nonprofit management partner, departed in recent weeks for a principal position elsewhere in Brooklyn.
Here’s a full transcript of Polakow-Suransky’s speech:
This is a school that looks at the whole child. This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives. The students in this school call it home. It’s a school that has built a curriculum around teaching students to think critical, to value their history and their culture, to know their identity, to respect each other’s humanity. It’s a school that’s safe. It’s a school that develops leadership, both amongst the faculty and amongst the students. And it’s a school where teachers know kids well and know kids deeply and are willing ot go above and beyond what you see in most schools in order to provide kids needs.
We heard students talk about coming to a school after being in schools where no one ever cared what they thought or what they felt. We heard students talk about the fact that this is a school where they want to learn as a result of the commitment that they feel from their teachers. And we heard many stories about individuals who had come back from very difficult situations and learned how to be students and how to go on to be successes as educators, as musicians, as artists when they left here.
And those were powerful stories and they came through loud and clear and I want you to know that as I take those stories back I will share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott, who is going to make a decision about whether this school continue to the panel meeting or not. But I was moved by what you said tonight. I’ve been to a lot of public hearings and I think it’s a tribute to the educators in this community that students here speak with such passion, with such eloquence and so thoughtfully about what works. And I do think that whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here and I thank you for sharing that tonight.