Astoria school disputes DOE’s failing grade

Students Francisco Meneses, 17, and Marcela Poenaru, 14, hand out signs for protesters at a rally to prevent Astoria's Bryant High School from having half of its staff laid off or being closed all together. Photo by Rebecca Henely
By Rebecca Henely

The auditorium at Astoria’s Bryant High School last Thursday had the atmosphere of a pep rally, with appearances from the school’s mascots and the crowd screaming, “We are Bryant!” But the past and present students were not cheering for their school’s team, but for the future of their school itself.

“I’m here to tell you that Bryant is not a failing school,” said state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria), an alumna of the school, at 48-10 31st Ave. in Astoria.

Led by faculty and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), an alumnus of the school, the students and alumni protested the state Department of Education’s designation of the school as “persistently lowest achieving,” meaning the school will either need to undergo a transformation or a turnaround, the latter of which would require 50 percent of the staff to be replaced.

While Bryant High School has had a lower than 60 percent graduation rate for the last four years — the state’s baseline for “persistently lowest achieving” — the school’s graduation rate last year was 59.6 percent.

Van Bramer, students and alumni protested the school having to either go through a turnaround or be shut down. Students past and present packed the auditorium, with many who could not get seats standing in the back or in the hall outside where the speakers were broadcast on televisions. Many wore the school’s blue and gold colors. Others held up signs or paper blue-and-gold colors reading “We [Love] Bryant.” The school’s jazz band, women’s choir and student dancers also performed at the event.

“I would not be standing here as a councilman if I did not get a great education from this school,” Van Bramer said.

Queens High Schools Superintendent Juan Mendez, said the graduation rate has also been steadily improving. The graduation rate was 49 percent in 2007 and 51 percent in 2008, but jumped to 56 percent in 2009 with the arrival of Principal Aaron Perez, Mendez said.

“We are going to meet the expectation of the state and meet that 80 percent graduation rate,” Mendez said.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) has also written a letter to city Schools Chancellor Cathie Black requesting that her office review the school.

Recent graduate Hadi Rashid said a turnaround would steal from future students the opportunity to learn under the teachers currently at Bryant.

“They need this school and they need these teachers,” Rashid said.

After the school rallied for an hour, students read essays to Mendez describing their experience at the school and urging the school to remain open and with its staff.

“The teachers at Bryant are the kind of teachers every school should have,” student Erum Hamid said during the rally.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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