The final bell has not rung for Jamaica High School, say supporters and school officials.
At a meeting in the school’s library, an impassioned Principal Walter Acham told a gathering of community leaders, local politicians, alumni and concerned citizens that even though the school has been scheduled for closure, they are not giving in without a fight.
“I have no intention of stepping back,” said Acham. “We’ve invested in better education and we’ve worked hard to improve the school. It would be a travesty to take that all away.”
The city Department of Education (DOE) announced a proposal last week to phase out the historic school starting next fall due to low enrollment and a poor graduation rate. But a representative for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) believes that much of the blame for poor statistics rests on the shoulders of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
“The UFT believes that the school chancellor and the mayor have a certain amount of accountability here,” said James Vasquez, the Queens high school district representative for the UFT. “If they believed that the school was not viable, where were they years ago to help fix the problems?”
Vasquez is referring to 2007, when Jamaica High School was labeled as “persistently dangerous” by New York State education officials. This labeling prompted the DOE to send letters to Jamaica parents, offering them an opportunity to transfer their kids to another school. This caused the school’s population to drop considerably, and also gave parents a reason to send potential students elsewhere.
“Naturally, many parents opted to pull their kids out,” said James Eterno, UFT chapter leader in Jamaica and a social studies teacher at the school. “But when the school was taken off the persistently dangerous list, the DOE did not send out any letters. They never said anything.”
Teachers and other officials blame a lot of the school’s problems on a bad reputation that has proved difficult to shake. They feel that the school is miles ahead of where it was just a few years ago and that they are being dismissed just as they are starting to make strides.
“Once we begin to overcome problems and make progress, they close us,” said Susan Satero, the school’s physical education teacher for 25 years. “They’re cutting off our lifeblood.”
Principal Acham offered a tour of the school to anyone who still thinks Jamaica High School deserves its “persistently dangerous” label. He defied anyone to walk around the school and say they feel unsafe.
“There is no graffiti, no garbage; only energy, passion and safety,” said Acham. “The kids are willing to learn and move forward. The DOE doesn’t understand that.”