Merging two small East Harlem schools makes sense on paper. So why has it sparked a backlash?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Global Tech Prep community members spoke out about plans to merge the school at a recent public hearing.

When students returned this fall to Global Technology Preparatory, a small middle school in East Harlem, everything seemed off. The principal and most of the teachers had been replaced, and their classrooms were now crowded with unfamiliar students in green uniform shirts, instead of blue like theirs.

The new students were from P.S. 7, a K-8 school in the same building, and people at Global Tech say the joint classes were part of a long-planned consolidation of the two schools that began unofficially last fall — months before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy officially approved the merger on Wednesday.

The threat of the consolidation was partly to blame for the exodus of Global Tech’s teaching staff and principal. After students began taking classes together this fall, clashes were common, along with calls to the police. Now, a school once known for its tight-knit community, intimate class sizes, and focus on technology has been transformed — and not for the better, according to students, parents, and staff.

“It felt more like a community,” said eighth-grader Scarlet Rivas. “Now we don’t have any of that.”

The merger of Global Tech and P.S. 7 follows 21 previous consolidations that Carmen Fariña, New York City’s retiring schools chief, has ordered during her tenure. They reflect her skepticism of the small-schools movement, which led to the creation of hundreds of new schools during the tenure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg under the premise that they offer more personalized attention and better results than the typical large campus. (Several studies have shown that students had better outcomes at the city’s small high schools than students who attended larger schools.)

Instead, Fariña has argued that very small schools cannot sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, since funding is allocated partly based on enrollment. Consolidation allows schools to pool their resources, slash administrative costs, and put money back into classrooms.

Global Tech was a prime candidate for consolidation. Already small, its enrollment shrank to 120 students this year — too few for the school to afford such basics as a licensed technology teacher, a foreign language instructor, or a parent coordinator, according to education department officials.

Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, disputed the claim that the merger informally began this fall, saying the joint classes represent the kind of collaboration between schools on shared campuses that the city encourages. After the merger officially occurs, it will benefit students at both schools, he added.

It will “address challenges with low enrollment, and create a stronger school option for families with more robust resources and academic programming,” he said in a statement.

But even if the merger makes logistical sense, it has still sparked a backlash.

Since Global Tech opened eight years ago, its staff has prided itself in offering students a portal to the world outside East Harlem, working with organizations that connected students with corporations, allowed them to perform on a Broadway stage, and created opportunities to learn coding skills at Google’s New York offices.

Now, as Global Tech’s faculty and students prepare to be absorbed by P.S. 7, they fear the partnerships, mission, and culture that defined their school will vanish. To them, that feels less like a consolidation than a closure.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, criticized the merger.

“Even if you still close down Global Tech, please process what these young people are saying,” Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, told a panel of city officials at a recent hearing, speaking through tears. “These are people’s lives.”

Word of the city’s plan to combine Global Tech and P.S. 7 first trickled out about three years ago, around the time Fariña instructed local superintendents to flag small schools that could be candidates for consolidation. Superintendent Alexandra Estrella, who oversees East Harlem’s District 4 and has clashed bitterly with another school in the past, told former Global Tech Principal David Baiz about the merger plan in 2015, he said.

After failing to convince Estrella to drop the merger, Baiz said, he lobbied other education department officials to keep the school open — a move that landed him in hot water.

“All of a sudden I was labeled as problematic,” he said, adding that he began being summoned to disciplinary meetings. “I got the picture, so I left.” (He is now earning a doctorate in education leadership at Harvard.)

After he resigned at the end of last school year, 14 of the school’s 16 teachers followed suit. The exodus shook the school, stripping it of much of its institutional memory and sense of community, parents and students said.

The proposed merger was not the sole reason teachers fled; several said that Estrella had denied their tenure applications, raising fears that their careers could be jeopardized if they stayed. However, some connected the tenure decisions to the merger, suspecting that the superintendent wanted to bring fresh faces into the newly combined schools.

“She wanted us out,” said Arnold Kim, a former Global Tech teacher who said his tenure application was blocked. “She can’t do a full makeover if all of the teachers are still there.”

An education department spokesman said Estrella made tenure decisions “after thoroughly reviewing the recommendations and carefully observing classroom instruction.”

Whatever the causes, the mass departure of teachers and the joint classes with P.S. 7 appear to have destabilized Global Tech.

Students with disabilities have received less individual attention this year due to a shortage of special-education teachers, according to school personnel and parents. (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said that Global Tech and P.S. 7 work together to meet the needs of students with disabilities.)

And police have responded to 911 calls involving the campus 31 times since September, while five people have been arrested on campus, according to the police department — a greater number of calls and arrests than during the entire 2016-17 school year.

“When you go there it’s just complete chaos,” said Jasmine Carrasquillo, whose two sons attend Global Tech, recalling a recent visit where she saw students roaming the hallways. “That would never have happened before.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”