By Bryan Schwartzman
About 350 parents attended an open forum with Levy and many of the Board of Education's superintendents and administrators Tuesday night at Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica. It was the second such meeting Levy had held in Queens since becoming chancellor 11 months ago.
“Queens is going to get 11 new schools, and construction on these may be moved ahead by as much as three years,” said Levy.
He said class overcrowding is the biggest problem currently facing schools and pointed out that the 11 new schools spread throughout the borough will only provide 6,000 additional seats.
“We could use 40,000 new seats,” he said.
Levy credited Borough President Claire Shulman and Queens Board of Education Member Terri Thomson, both of whom were at the meeting, for pushing for more school construction in Queens.
Some of the new schools will include the Law Enforcement High School in Jamaica, the Frank Sinatra performing arts school in Astoria, and two kindergarten through eighth-grade schools and a high school on the Creedmoor campus,
Levy touted the results of the city's 2000 summer school program. Some 63,000 students were enrolled in the mandatory program and more than 120,000 were enrolled in the enrichment program.
Levy said 63 percent of students enrolled in the mandatory program were promoted to the next grade, and 41 percent of those students jumped a reading grade level. He said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has funded an additional 50,000 new seats for the 2001 summer school program.
He also touted Giuliani's State of the City address, and said his staff had floated many of the proposals the mayor talked about regarding education.
“There was an enormous amount said about how schools will operate in the next year,” Levy said.
The address called for the creation of 21,000 classroom libraries in grades kindergarten through sixth. He said this can make books more accessible and save students trips to the public library.
Levy also backed Giuliani's plan to create suspension centers in schools, where suspended students would have to sit in intensive classrooms with a small number of students instead of sitting at home.
“It's not like one good shot and you're out for the week,” said Levy.
The chancellor also said many seasoned teachers will soon be retiring, and it is one of his most important goals to find good teachers to replace them.
“Teacher quality is what this job is all about,” he said. “Our teachers are a great source of strength. They are something of a matter of pride.”
During the question-and-answer period, Forest Hills resident Henry Katz cited the statistic that 50 percent of New York City high school students do not graduate on time.
“I don't know of any other company where every other product is defective,” said Katz.
“Students are not products,” responded Levy. He said more than 80 percent of students graduate within six years or get their General Equivalency Diploma.
But Levy also said 17 percent of students never get their high school diploma. “That is a serious problem,” he said.
One parent at District 29's PS 52 in Jamaica complained about the Atlantic Express Bus Company, which is also based in Jamaica. He said the bus often gets students to class late, and the school's principal is continually filing complaints against the company.
Richard Scara, who is in charge of transportation for the Board of Education, said each time a complaint is received, it goes on the bus company's record and is taken in account when the company's contract comes up for renewal.
“If buses are not complying with the contract, there should be a penalty,” Shulman said. “They shouldn't be paid if they are not getting kids to school on time.”
Levy suggested parents in District 29 concerned about bus service should contact “Superintendent” Michael Johnson, whose official title is district administrator.
“Mr. Levy, the morale in our district is so low we don't get people to meeting any more,” said Gertrude Garnesh, an activist in District 29. “Get a permanent superintendent in the district.”
The school district has been in turmoil for almost two years since its then superintendent, Celestine Miller, was fired in February 1999 by former Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew for delaying to report that an 8-year-old boy had gone into a Rosedale school carrying a loaded gun.
Since Miller's dismissal, the school district, which stretches from Queens Village to Laurelton and from Jamaica to Springfield Gardens, has been in flux. Miller was recently indicted on bid-rigging charges involving computer sales to schools under her command.
After Miller left, District 29 had an acting interim superintendent and its school board was suspended and then reinstated before Johnson arrived on the scene.
Levy tapped Johnson to run the district, with 27,000 students in 28 schools, in February until a new superintendent could be found. The school board has submitted five separate names for the job of permanent superintendent, but Levy has rejected them all.
“I think Michael Johnson is a terrific superintendent,” said Levy. He said the school board must come up with a better candidate than Johnson for him to approve.
“I'm a pretty tough grader,” he said.