Newtown High reacts to underachiever label

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Elmhurst’s 130-year-old Newtown High School is not taking its placement on a state list of schools slated for redesign or closure lying down, although answers about the process have been hard to come by.

“If you are a student, the responsibility you have is to graduate and graduate on time,” Principal John Ficalora told a meeting of parents, students and staff at the school Jan. 27, a week after the list was released. “Your future and the future of our community and our city depend on that.”

The 4,500-seat high school made the state’s list of 57 consistently underperforming schools because of its low graduation rate, which has remained below 60 percent for three consecutive years. Options for the future include turning Newtown into a charter school, replacing the school with a new one, transforming the school through stringent staff evaluations or closing it entirely.

The school is 60 percent Hispanic and 31 percent of the student body are English language learners. They come from 100 different countries and speak 59 languages, staff said.

Among the diverse alumni was Lou Patel, who graduated in 2003. He said he started at Newtown High School when he had been in the United States for less than two years.

“I learned my leadership skills from this school,” he said. “Right now I’m speaking English because of Newtown High School.”

Ficalora, a Newtown alumnus, has worked at the school for 38 years, including the last 18 as principal. Judging from the wild applause he received from the packed auditorium, his students and staff are not eager to see him replaced.

Ficalora urged parents to get involved as well.

“We’d love to see 3,000 parents here every month at our PTA meetings,” he said.

Hundreds of parents, students and teachers attended the meeting organized by state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst), where they heard from Francesca Pena, the borough’s new commissioner of high schools for the city Department of Education.

Pena promised to work with the school community in the decision-making process and pointed out that the school may be dropped from the list if its graduation rate improves when the 2009-10 statistics are released later this year. Whatever path is chosen, Newtown will be open in its current form for the 2010-11 school year, she said.

Teacher Marynes Huerta said some of her students had already adopted the attitude that the school was going to close.

“Study,” she urged her students. “We are on this list because the students are not graduating. It is for you, not for us. We can find new jobs. Where are you going to go?”

Newtown alumnus Edward Erneta, who graduated in 1972, offered the support of the alumni association.

“Option 4 is not an option,” he said of closing the school.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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