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City votes to close seven Queens high schools

Student Activist United rip off their T-shirts in protest.
TimesLedger Newspapers

The city Panel for Educational Policy voted in Brooklyn last week to close seven Queens high schools at the end of this year and reopen them as new schools in the fall.

Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Flushing HS, August Martin HS in Jamaica, Richmond Hill HS, John Adams HS in Ozone Park, William Cullen Bryant HS in Astoria and Long Island City HS were all approved for the turnaround model by a vote of 8-4.

Nearly 30 senior education officials, including city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and 12 voting members of the PEP, sat around a horseshoe-shaped table on the stage inside the school’s auditorium, listening to about four hours of public comment.

State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) addressed the panel with what she called mixed emotions: her alma mater, Grover Cleveland, had been given a last-minute reprieve when Walcott announced earlier that day the school would be removed from the chopping block.

“There are many students and parents who are not lucky enough to experience the relief Cleveland is experiencing,” she said.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee, said he had heard allegations that Cleveland had been removed from the list due to political pressure applied by Nolan, and asked the panel why the Ridgewood high school was spared while a similar school, such as Long Island City, was not.

City Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Shael Polakow-Suransky said Cleveland had a high turnout at a public hearing, and there were significant differences in the schools’ progress reports and quality review surveys.

“There’s not a whole lot of influence that comes from politicians,” he said.

Nolan opposed the turnaround model and said she still had not received an answer about how much it would cost each school.

“This is clearly an expensive endeavor,” she said.

The primary cost of turnaround is associated with replacing teachers, who are not fired but receive their full pay and benefits while they search for a new job on the DOE’s open market.

Nolan, chairwoman of the state Education Committee, played a role in securing the federal funding. She said she was in discussions with state Education Commissioner Peter King about whether or not New York would accept such grants in the future, knowing that the turnaround model would be an option.

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, Borough President Helen Marhsall’s appointee on the panel, said he thought the turnaround model was chosen in an attempt to chase the funding.

“I do believe money is driving a lot of what we do here,” he said.

Under the plan, each school’s principal will sit on a committee composed of DOE and United Federation of Teachers appointees, who will evaluate new and prospective teachers.

Marc Sternberg, another deputy chancellor, said it would be up to the committee to decide which percentage of teachers would be replaced. If more than 50 percent were removed, the school would, in theory, be available for the funds, but he said principals would make decisions based on what is best for students.

After public comments were over, the panel discussed Fedkowskyj’s proposal for the DOE to abandon the turnaround model.

Mayoral appointee Judy Bergtraum said many of the schools have had issues for a long time.

“I just see this as an opportunity for change, and it doesn’t come very often,” she said.

The vote came after weeks of protests and opposition from the school’s communities to the DOE’s controversial plan.

At the beginning of the school year, the New York State Education Department allocated more than $14.5 million in federal School Improvement Grant funds for nine persistently lowest-achieving Queens high schools, seven of which eventually ended up on the PEP’s agenda.

The state DOE used these funds to put the schools in various federally approved models, which ranged from pairing a school with an educational management organization to replacing the principal and implementing a number of reforms.

The NYSED placed a condition on the funds that the DOE and the United Federation of Teachers come to an agreement on teacher evaluations by Dec. 30, and when that deadline passed and no agreement had been reached, the state suspended payments.

Soon after, in his State of the City Speech, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to place the schools in a more intrusive reform model, known as turnaround, which would allow the city to remove more than 50 percent of a school’s teachers.

The mayor said he intended to go ahead with the plan regardless of whether or not the federal funding would be available.

For about two months school communities opposed and protested the plan, all leading up to the April 26 vote at the Prospect Heights Campus.

At the end of the night, the panel started to vote, one at a time, on every item on the agenda, which included closings and co-locating charter and traditional schools across the city.

By this time only a small crowd remained, including Bryant teacher Georgia Lignou, who heckled the panel at each count, calling them puppets.

The Staten Island borough appointee sided with all seven mayoral appointees in favor of each item, while the four remaining borough appointees opposed each one.

Alison Gozzi-Lewis, a special education teacher at Long Island City, wept after the panel voted to close the school she had worked at for six years. Even though the PEP had never opposed a DOE recommendation, she said Fedkowskyj’s proposal and the news about Cleveland gave her some sense of optimism.

“I came in with some hope,” she said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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