but a whimper

At Murry Bergtraum HS, little will to contest proposed changes

 Murray Bergtraum Business Teacher Carol Newell spoke of the need for more social services to help students do better in school. (Photo by Aisha Asif)
<br />Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers Carol Newell testified at a public hearing about how the school’s building will be used next year about the need for more social services to help students. (Photo: Aisha Asif)

The massive auditorium at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers was nearly empty Thursday night when District 2 Superintendent Marisol Bradbury read aloud the Department of Education’s proposal to open a new high school in the lower Manhattan building.

The new school would work with the National Parks Service to offer career training in carpentry, masonry, landscaping, and restoration, Bradbury explained to the handful of adults in the audience. It would open in September with a ninth grade and expand to as many as 500 students over three years, according to the department’s proposal.

At the same time as the new school grows, Murry Bergtraum would lose students. By 2018, the school would have around 450 fewer students than the 1,806 who currently attend.

The proposal would mean a jarring new change for a once-venerable high school whose reputation and performance have plummeted in recent years. But where educators and students at other schools being asked to share space have made concerted efforts to hold on to their classrooms, few at Murry Bergtraum attended the city’s public hearing to comment on the plans.

The sparse attendance at the hearing did not surprise social studies teacher and teachers union chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana, who was not at the hearing himself. “We don’t have any community here,” he said. “When you send high-needs kids across town to school, you don’t have a community.”

Elfrank-Dana was referring to shifts in the school’s enrollment in recent years that have accompanied a rise in discipline issues and the withering of some popular programs. The closure of other large high schools in the area in the early years of the Bloomberg administration meant that many high-need students now end up at Murry Bergtraum, Elfrank-Dana said.

“The mayor turned one of the best high schools in the city into a dumping ground,” Elfrank-Dana said. “That’s been the legacy of the school for the last 10 years.”

In 2010, students rioted in the school after the school’s principal at the time banned bathroom breaks in an effort to cut down on discipline issues. The school received a “D” on its most recent progress report with an “F” in student progress, while only 29 percent of teachers say order and discipline is maintained in the school, according to Department of Education statistics.

Carol Newell, a business teacher at Murry Bergtraum who spoke at the hearing, said her department — once the pride of the school — shrunk from 32 teachers to just seven since 2006. She said students’ greatest need is for social services, a need that became especially acute after Hurricane Sandy.

“How do you make a kid study if he’s going through flux if he can’t figure out anything about his identity?” she asked. “There’s issues at home. How does he make it?”

Parent leaders from the area said their concerns about the department’s plans started at the school level and radiated across the city.

“Why are we developing a new school here to teach landscaping?” asked Paola de Kock, president of Citywide Council of High Schools. She said she wondered why the city did not give Murry Bergtraum some of the $20 million set aside for a new initiative to teach computer science in schools when the high school was one of the first in the city to teach the subject.

De Kock also said she was concerned that the city has moved to close other schools that started out sharing space with new schools, such as Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx.

“What if it’s not the size of the school? What if it’s something else?” asked Shino Tanikawa, president of the District 2 Community Education Council. “I want to understand that.”

Both Tanikawa and de Kock said they were nostalgic for what they described as the pre-Bloomberg glory days at Murry Bergtraum.

“Murry Bergtraum was once one of the best non-specialized high schools in the city,” de Kock said. “I’m not talking about 100 years; I’m not talking about 50 years ago. I’m talking about this school from 1975 when it was founded until the Bloomberg administration.”

Elfrank-Dana said sharing space with another school would be disruptive if not detrimental, but he said he stayed away from the hearing anyway. “I have better things to do than participate in the illusion of due diligence when it comes to alleged transparency and common decision-making,” he said.

The Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board, is set to vote March 11 on the co-location proposal along with a slew of other space-sharing and closure plans. Among the members of the panel, which has never rejected a city proposal, is Judy Bergtraum, the daughter of Murry Bergtraum High School’s namesake.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”