Jamaica HS can be improved if kept open and treated better

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I wanted to take the opportunity to voice my concerns about what has clearly been the systemic destruction of Jamaica High School by the city Department of Education. I speak not only as an elected official, but as the parent of two public school students and a proud alumnus of Jamaica High.

I have many concerns regarding last week’s decision by the city Panel for Educational Policy in voting to close Jamaica HS. Before the DOE makes a decision to close down schools — many of which have deep and storied roots within the local communities they serve — we must ensure that these schools have been given adequate resources to properly educate our children and that the DOE is using accurate and correct evaluation measures to determine a school closure.

The current system and criteria used by the DOE to determine whether a school should be closed is not clear, reliable or consistent. For example, one school scheduled to close last year received a D on its Progress Report yet still received a rating of “proficient” on its Quality Review. This is not an appropriate method to assess academic need in our schools or accurately measure a school’s performance. It is not clear how other schools that receive near-failing grades on both their Progress Reports and Quality Reviews are allowed to be kept open, but schools slowly getting better and receiving “proficient” marks on their progress report are forced to close by the DOE.

The DOE is manipulating schools to fail so they can clean out the staff and administration through the back door. Take Jamaica High, for example. Since 2003, Jamaica HS has had a 63 percent reduction in school support staff, including secretaries, guidance counselors and paraprofessionals. Jamaica High, due to the lack of resources provided by the department, has turned into an “over the counter” school. Jamaica HS has the most over-the-counter registrations of any school in the city, which has prevented administrators from developing a concise budget so they could properly request resources needed to deal with a transient student population.

Due to the lack of focus by DOE officials and the oversaturation of at-risk children, Jamaica High has not been allowed to evolve to meet the needs of its students. Over the last four years, it has become the primary intake school for last-minute admissions and could not compete with specialized first-choice schools

Closing schools should be a last resort, not an automatic response when things are not going well. The DOE takes steps to install new leadership at failing schools, but does not give them time to make lasting changes. At Jamaica HS, the recently appointed principal, Walter Acham, has admirably reversed trends and started to make progress, but has only been on the job for little more than two years — nowhere near an acceptable amount of time to make an assessment of a school team’s capabilities.

I stand by my conviction that the dissolution of Jamaica High is not the change that is needed. The overwhelming issue consistently raised by community and elected officials during this debate has been about the need for additional funding and resources. Jamaica HS has not been given the ability to flourish nor given the resources that have been legislatively allocated.

It is my contention that the DOE has purposely employed a systematic deconstruction of Jamaica High by co-locating three smaller schools within Jamaica HS’s premises. These smaller schools were then given incredible resources, such as laptops and SMART boards, as well as priority classroom and office space. The original school sees its resources depleted and student-to-teacher ratios begin to decrease.

The administration and staff are demoralized while the school is designated as low-performing. Ultimately, the school is phased out and replaced with another small school. One new school was given 90 new computers to start out with. Jamaica High now has 1,200 students and is bursting at the seams with nearly 50 students per class using outdated equipment. It is literally an outrageous case of separate and unequal that is being forced upon the students of Jamaica HS.

Three of these schools exist in the 21st century while the largest exists as though left behind in the 19th century. These 1,200 students represent the wanton neglect on the part of the mayor and the DOE. Students, who like so many thousands throughout this city, have been abandoned and left behind in the closed-off shadows of their neglected classrooms — the unwitting pawns caught up in this grandstanding game of “improving our schools.”

It is a scheme so transparent that even the students at Jamaica High have realized this and were bright enough to incorporate these issues into an adaptation of the ancient Greek play “Antigone.” The students, in a theatric performance I personally attended several weeks ago, brilliantly demonstrated how the DOE has pulled resources from Jamaica HS and favored the newer, smaller schools in the hopes that Jamaica High would die a slow death. The children in Jamaica HS recognize, by sharing a space in this same building where the other students get so much more, that they are being classified as second-class citizens.

Jamaica High is an institution that has a great deal of history in Queens. At the time of its construction in 1925, it was the largest school site in the entire country. Last year, it was designated a city landmark. It has an impressive list of alumni including Pulitzer Prize winners, a Nobel Prize winner and a myriad of congressional and city elected officials. Today, the school has an award-winning robotics team and a highly successful women’s track team.

Jamaica HS is still a place where the minds and bodies of young people can be properly trained for success in the future if given the proper resources. Ultimately, a historical institution such as Jamaica High should not be lost to the variances of desiring smaller schools. The DOE needs to address the underlying issue of resource allocation and give new leadership a real chance to succeed.

President Barack Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, rightly talked about the education of our children truly being successful when “reform isn’t just a top-down mandate but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.” The DOE has been absolutely tone-deaf to such advice. It has operated in a manner that has been dismissive of the concerns of educators and parents while dictating deplorable advice about population control.

Repeated attempts to have reasonable discourse with this chancellor and her predecessor have been met with a dismissive attitude of annoyance. Even the successful lawsuit by the NAACP and United Federation of Teachers last year that halted the closing of Jamaica High on procedural issues did little to sway the DOE from its course of action. It was as if the department acknowledged its error and then, in the words of singer Jay-Z, said “onto the next one.”

It is an untenable situation that has left me with this recourse: to tell the truth about Jamaica HS and shame the devil.

Leroy Comrie

City Councilman

St. Albans

Updated 11:02 am, October 12, 2011
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