When Juan Santiago first heard the news about Jamaica High School, he was devastated.
“The news was pretty harsh,” said the 14-year-old freshman of the Department of Education’s (DOE) proposal to phase-out Jamaica, as well as Beach Channel High School. “This school [Jamaica] has been around a long time.”
William Havemann, DOE spokesperson, told The Courier that the process for phasing out schools is slightly different this year.
“Over the past week there have been proposals for schools that over time should be phased out and replaced with better performing schools,” he said.
Jamaica, established in 1892, with a current enrollment of 1,527; and Beach Channel, with 1,345 enrolled in 2009, were the two institutions in Queens, and Havemann explained that there will be a comment period of over 45 days, during which time parents can weigh in and public hearings will be held.
By January 26, he said, the Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the proposals, and new or existing schools may move into the buildings.
Havemann said that current students at both schools will be able to graduate on track, but that neither will be accepting incoming ninth grades in September 2010 if the proposals are accepted.
“Jamaica has a long history, and at one point it was fairly well respected,” said Havemann, who noted that recent statistics are “sobering.”
In 2008, according to the DOE, the graduation rate was 44.5 percent; in 2009, the number increased slightly to 46.2 percent. This slight increase still leaves the school 20 points below the projected Queens average of 67 percent.
Additionally, the DOE said that Jamaica received a “C” on its 2006-2007 Progress Report, a “C” on its 2007-2008 Progress Report, and a “D” on its 2008-2009 Progress Report, declining in all three sub-categories.
During its 117-year history, the school has graduated such notables as Francis Ford Coppola, The Cleftones and Nobel Prize winner Gertrude B. Elion.
“There are so many great people that have gone here,” said freshman Jose Galindo. “Maybe there are more great people going here.”
“These two schools have an unfortunate record of low graduation rates, and given that graduation rates and readiness for life beyond high school are the measures for success, we simply cannot wait any longer to fulfill the promises we have made to the children of southeast Queens,” said John White, Deputy Chancellor, DOE.
The agency also noted that demand for both Jamaica and Beach Channel “is low and declining.”
“I’m very upset, I’m devastated,” said a teacher at Jamaica for over 25 years. “There is a lot of vitality and great things going on here. There may be a lot to overcome, but we have dedicated teachers.”
Beach Channel statistics were along the same lines: the graduation rate was 46.1 percent in 2007-08, and in 2008-09, the rate was 46.9 percent. In its most recent Progress Report, the school received a “D,” including an “F” in the progress and environment sub-sections and a “D” in the performance sub-section. And, according to the DOE, parents, teachers, and students expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the school on the 2009 Learning Environment Survey.
As for the staff, the language of the contract reads, “If sufficient number of displaced staff apply, at least 50 percent of the school’s pedagogical positions shall be selected from the senior most qualified staff at the school impacted by the creation of a new or redesigned school.”
What this basically means is that at least 50 percent of qualified staff need to be considered for employment at the new schools that will open in the building.
“We understand that these are difficult and consequential decisions, but we must recognize that these schools have been underperforming and it is our responsibility to change that,” said Havemann.
A parents’ meeting for Jamaica is set for Wednesday, December 16 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium; a public hearing will be held on January 7, also at 6 p.m.
For Beach Channel, the parents’ meeting will be on Tuesday, December 15 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium; the public hearing is set for January 6, also at 6 p.m.
In the meantime, local politicians are planning to protest outside Jamaica on Thursday morning, December 10, beginning at 10 a.m.