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Residents, pols support Jamaica HS at rowdy hearing

Students, teachers and supporters of Jamaica High School made it loud and clear to representatives of the city Department of Education that they would do everything in their power to stop the city’s attempt at another shutdown of their campus.

Nearly 100 people, ranging from current students to elected officials such as state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), went to the school at 167-01 Gothic Drive last Thursday night for the department’s public hearing on its proposal for a phase-out of the 119-year-old institution.

The supporters, impatient to express their concerns about the plan to stop admitting students in the fall and create a smaller school in the building, started a rally outside the historically landmarked building before the hearing even began.

“Save Jamaica High School!” they shouted as they walked in a circle with homemade signs written in different languages.

When the meeting did start, the voices of dissent got louder.

The city Panel for Educational Policy voted to phase out Jamaica HS last year, but the United Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit that claimed the city did not properly inform parents about the reason behind the closures. The DOE is also proposing a phase-out of Beach Channel HS, IS 231 Magnetech 2000 in Laurelton, PS 30 in Jamaica and 22 other campuses across the city.

This year Deputy Chancellor John White handed out a five-page fact sheet and explanation of the phase-out and how it would affect students.

Jamaica High School’s graduation rate last year was 50 percent, which was below the 63 percent citywide average, and this year it was awarded an overall D grade on its report card. A visibly perturbed White had to stop his explanation several times as the audience members, including Avella, criticized his comments, questioned his facts and interrupted him.

“I think it is important that all of us in the room, whether we agree or disagree with it, listen to the facts,” White said to no avail to the school’s screaming supporters.

Things quieted down when teacher James Eterno presented his own facts about the school’s performance. The graduation rate increased from 35 percent in 2005 to an estimated 56 percent last year, according to statistics he complied from the state Department of Education.

He and other supporters, including senior Kevin Gonzalez, also criticized the city DOE for cutting their funding, resources and other means of academic support during the last year while providing new computers and books to the three other schools that share space in Jamaica’s building.

“How are we to succeed if we don’t have these resources?” the teen asked.

Things got more rowdy when representatives from those schools — Queens Collegiate HS, The Hillside Arts & Letters Academy and the HS for Community Leadership — presented facts about their campuses. Avella stood up and urged the audience to speak out against the presentation because it was taking time away from talking about Jamaica.

“Why are we talking about this? Why aren’t we holding the public hearing?” he asked.

The senator did not let up when he got the chance to speak at the panel. Avella also chastised the city DOE for what he called “manufacturing” the data on graduation rates and for choosing a phase-out plan instead of giving the school better resources.

“This is the worst example of discrimination I have seen as an elected official,” he said.

The Panel for Educational Policy is slated to make its decision about the school closures Feb. 3.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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