New city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited his alma mater, Francis Lewis HS, last Thursday, where he touted the school for balancing its large class size with special programs that attract some of the brightest students in the city.
Walcott, who was granted the waiver he needed April 13 by the state Department of Education to become chancellor, said the school “is very unique in that Lewis is an extremely successful school and success attracts people.”
Walcott said he would work to reduce class size at Francis Lewis, attended by 3,200 students in four sessions over the course of the school day.
Francis Lewis estimates that as much as 40 percent of its students use false addresses to get into the zoned school.
“Our goal is to try to reduce their numbers,” Walcott said.
Leslie O’Grady, co-president of the school’s PTA, told the new chancellor the organization was worried about overcrowding and budget cuts.
“We’re concerned that our children are having lunch at 9 in the morning,” she said, noting some gym classes are conducted without using the gym.
Walcott said he was familiar “with the challenges Lewis faced” and would work to address the school’s issues.
The Cambria Heights resident said he wants to maintain the school’s zoned status and try to ensure there are no more than 39 students to a class. He said his administration would use “proper verification” to determine whether students are actually zoned for Francis Lewis.
“I’m going to be monitoring what’s going on,” he said.
Walcott toured the halls of the Fresh Meadows school, visiting a drama class and taking time to talk to students, including senior Mahfuza Ahmed, who is headed to the prestigious Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education.
“You got into Sophie Davis? Whoa, that’s big time,” Walcott told Mahfuza.
“It was fascinating to see him and we’re happy that a guy from Francis Lewis is chancellor and we’ll look up to him,” she said.
Marissa Finkelstein, a Francis Lewis graduate and drama teacher at the school, said she was thrilled by the new chancellor’s visit.
“It’s exciting,” Finkelstein said. “Not just for a public school, but for our school.”
Finkelstein noted Walcott had visited his alma mater before and spoken at graduations.
“Several of the kids know the name,” she said.
Alexis Atkinson, a 17-year-old senior, also had a chance to speak with Walcott.
“I think it’s great because he has more credentials than Cathie Black,” Alexis said. “I remember watching him get appointed.”
Alexis, who received a full scholarship to Colby College, was called a “superstar” by Walcott.
“I wasn’t a superstar and I can only imagine what you’ll be,” Walcott told the senior.
Francis Lewis HS Principal Musa Ali Shama said the school takes pride in knowing the new chancellor attended classes at the school in the mid-1960s.
“I think this helps you motivate students,” Shama said.
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz
©2011 Community News Group
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