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Dewey H.S. teetering on uncertain future - Educators fear ‘impact school’ status will hurt institution’s success

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In one room, term papers on subjects ranging from Atlantic Yards to Tom DeLay hang on display. In the hall, pictures taken for photography class depict the world in dramatic black and white. In another corridor, buildings constructed out of clay display the depth and breadth of student imaginations. For teachers at John Dewey High School, at Stillwell Avenue and Avenue Z, these diverse exhibits capture the spirit of an unusual school that is, as one said, “A 39-year-old experiment that works,” featuring a range of innovative teaching approaches born of Dewey’s philosophy, which encourages learning by doing and creative thought over rote memorization. How successful is the school? Six years ago, it received an award for excellence from the United States Department of Education as a year 2000 Showcase Site, and, last month, it received the highest rating, “well-developed,” from an educational consultant, Castle Consultancy, hired by the Department of Education (DOE) to evaluate schools. Yet, the school is in serious jeopardy of being designated an impact school by the Department of Education (DOE), something that would also alter the perception of Dewey as a successful high school. “When parents see that it’s an impact school, they’ll say no,” noted Martin Haber, a special education teacher at the school. “It would put us off the map.” On January 26th, just 18 days after Castle finished its week-long evaluation, Dewey’s Principal, Barry Fried, sent a memo to staff warning them of the “probability” that the school will be declared an impact school. “It will bring about metal detectors, police presence and increased SSAs (school safety agents) to monitor and assist in security measures,” Fried wrote, adding, “This may also force us into ‘lock down’ mode denying student use of the campus.” Margie Feinberg, a DOE spokesperson, confirmed the principal’s words. “The likelihood is slim that it will not be an impact school,” she told this newspaper, the day before a scheduled meeting between Fried and Chancellor Joel Klein that will take place just as this paper is being printed. However, teachers at the school contend that the statistics that are fueling the situation are deceptive. “Current statistics relating to school incidents do not warrant the labeling of Dewey as an ‘impact school,’” read a February 5th letter from Dewey staff to Klein. “Such a designation …bespeaks a school that is dysfunctional or perhaps remiss in attending to its responsibility to provide students a safe, quality-oriented learning environment and this is definitely not the case.” “The numbers are misleading,” asserted Sean Doyle, the UFT chapter leader at the school. “We have a lot of extracurricular activities where outside groups use the facilities in the evening, on weekends and in the summer. The data from these extracurricular situations is included.” In addition, noted English teacher Burt Bloom, “Sometimes, even things that happen off campus are included. A kid got hit by a car outside the school during summer school, and that was included. Things that happen on the subway platform are charged against us also.” “We are just trying to preserve the school,” added social studies teacher Wade Goria. “There’s been a misapprehension about a lot of statistics. This place is open and tolerant and diverse, and the kids are generally very lovely. You’re not going to get bad kids coming to a place that has an extended day where they have to work harder. We just don’t think a lot of the ways the statistics are interpreted are at all fair.” If the school is named an impact school, it could well mean the end of the extended day program — which provides students with the time to do independent research at resource centers maintained in each discipline, and work one-on-one with teachers. It could also mean the institution of a split session, which the teachers say would fundamentally alter the school’s dynamic. “When the extended day goes, Dewey goes,” Doyle noted. “You only have to work in John Dewey to see the mellowness of the teachers and students. We believe other schools should be copying this. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he added. “The heart and soul of this place is the innovative approach to education,” added Goria. This, he said, includes a letter grading system that takes some of the competition away, something which is reinforced by the lack of an intramural sports program. “Kids, after the first year, begin to get the idea that academics rule here,” Goria noted. This is not the first time the Dewey approach to learning has faced a threat. “Twelve years ago,” recalled Doyle, “we thought Dewey was finished in its original form, but a former teacher waged a successful campaign to save the school.” “When teachers are happy at a school, it’s a pretty good sign,” noted Goria. “We have a lot of veterans who’ve been here for 35 years. We wouldn’t be trying to fight to save what we have if it didn’t work.” Besides changing the entire feel of the school, which they say has thrived thanks to a dedicated and enthusiastic staff and equally enthusiastic students, being named an impact school will mean an end to a successful program to help troubled students, said Dave Tannenbaum, a District 75 teacher of special education who works at the school. “We bring at-risk children into he school to reintroduce them into the general education world so they can earn a regular high school diploma,” he explained. “If Dewey is given impact school status, the superintendent of District 75 will pull any inclusion programs out of Dewey.” While, Tannenbaum acknowledged, “We’re talking about a minimum amount of students,” he stressed, “But their lives are enriched by being in this setting.”

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