3 Queens schools enter summer in limbo

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As the final bell for the school year sounded at schools across the borough Monday, students and teachers at the three Queens high schools slated for closure in January said they were starting the summer with tremendous concern over the future of their campuses.

Although a lawsuit saved Jamaica High School, Beach Channel High and the Business Computer Applications and Entrepreneurship Magnet High in Cambria Heights from being phased out starting in the fall, the city Department of Education is still fighting to have an appellate court reinstate its decision.

While the battle over the schools’ future goes on, prospective students were alerted during the application process during the spring that the school they chose may not be open for freshmen come September and that has created low enrollment numbers for next year’s freshman class, according to teachers at Jamaica HS.

“They’ve been undermining us, and it’s just wrong,” said Jamaica High social studies teacher James Eterno.

At Jamaica High, next year’s freshman class will consist of 22 students, according to Eterno.

Twenty union members are expected to be removed from Jamaica High School because there may be no freshman class, and they will go into the city’s teacher reserve pool, Eterno said.

School supporters, such as community activist Kevin Forrestal, said students were frightened by a March letter from the DOE that Eterno said dissuaded pupils from applying to schools like Jamaica High because it stated the schools had been slated for closure, which the letter stated could still happen if the appellate court rules in their favor. 

“The Department of Education is trying to discourage people from going and their ultimate objective is to close the school regardless of what a judge or anyone does,” Forrestal said.

A spokesman for the DOE said it is still waiting for the appellate court to rule over the United Federation of Teacher’s lawsuit that stopped the closings in March. The spokesman would not discuss ongoing litigation, but said the letter mailed to students was done to ensure they had all the information before they made their decision.

Susan Sutera, a physical education teacher at Jamaica High for 25 years, said she was disheartened by the low number of freshman applicants because the school community has worked hard to save the school.

“No matter what we do, there are just things out of our control,” she said.

Students, however, are not taking no for an answer.

Nearly 300 students from the 19 schools have formed a student alliance group to fight the DOE’s plans. Racheal Ali, a graduating Jamaica High senior who serves as vice president of the grassroots group, said they have been going to community boards, elected officials, media and alumni to rally their support and show that Jamaica HS is worth keeping open.

Working with teachers, the students have opened a Facebook page, blog and done events such as a community barbecue to promote school spirit.

“I’m a little worried, but I think we’re strong and we can win over the Department of Ed again,” she said.

The outpouring of support and activism has already gone far for the Queens high schools.

In January, the city voted to phase out 14 high schools in the five boroughs, including Jamaica, Beach Channel and the Campus Magnet school, due to low graduation numbers and unsatisfactory grades. The schools were not to admit freshman students and smaller institutions would be set up inside the buildings of the current schools.

Students and teachers at the high schools said they were being unnecessarily criticized because their low grades were a result of budget cuts and a reduction in educational resources.

Beach Channel teens too slammed the city for its proposal to shutter the institution they said had well prepared them for life after high school.

“There are wonderful teachers here who really care about us passing,” said Tierra Munion, a Far Rockaway resident and Beach Channel graduate.

Daniel Malcaus, Beach Channel’s valedictorian from Far Rockaway, too praised the school and said it needed more support from the city, not less.

“I don’t think they need to do close it, they just need to change it a little bit,” he said. “It’s a really good school.”

A teacher at Beach Channel HS, who asked not to be named, concurred.

“We need real resources put into the public schools that we already have. Why are they giving up on a school that works so hard for its students?” the teacher asked.

Other instructors stressed that the only way to show improvement is to give students a secure place to learn and that limiting the number of students sends the wrong message.

“It’ll be open in the fall, but the way I look at it is that it will be limping along like a sorry version of itself,” Jamaica High special education teacher Joan Bessette said.

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

Updated 5:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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