High School Students, Teachers, Pols Fight DOE ‘Turnaround’ Plan
A raucous crowd of parents, teachers, students and alumni attempted to sway Department of Education (DOE) personnel to save Bryant High School from closure as part of a proposed “turnaround” at a public hearing last Tuesday, Apr. 3 at the Astoria/Woodside school.
As reported in previous editions of the Times Newsweekly, Bryant, located at 48-10 31st Ave., is one of eight Queens high schools (and 26 schools citywide) slated to undergo what the DOE calls a “turnaround” plan.
The plan entails closing the school at the conclusion of the current school year and opening a new one in its place that would accept all current students. Teachers at the school would have to reapply for their positions.
“I think it’s ridiculous, honestly,” Irene Drivas, a junior at the school, told reporters prior to the hearing. “My teachers don’t deserve any of this.”
If the proposal is agreed to at the Panel for Educational Policy’s Apr. 26 meeting at the Prospect Heights Campus in Brooklyn, it has the potential to bring $1.8 million in federal grants to the school’s coffers, according to Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, the DOE’s representative at the hearing.
One woman who asked not to be identified claimed that while she would like to see the Bryant name remain, “kids can only be affected in a good way” by the turnover in teachers and the increased school funding.
“Some teachers and staff do not like change,” the woman, a parent of a freshman student, said. “It’s been a school that needs a change.”
To start the meeting, District 30 Community Education Council Co- President Isaac Carmignani and the DOE’s Jenny Sobelman invited a parade of lawmakers and officials to the microphone, all of whom spoke out against the DOE’s plan.
City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a 1987 graduate of the school, disputed the idea that the school is in trouble.
“This is not a failing school. It is a school where success happens every single day,” he told the crowd. “Ending the life of Bryant High School would be like striking a blow to the heart of this community.”
“Any day, any year that is lost we can never get back in the educational lives of our young people,” he added.
Van Bramer also participated in a rally prior to the hearing outside the school.
“The foundations that make Bryant great are still here,” AssemblywomanAravella Simotas, a fellow Bryant alum, claimed.
She pointed to the recent decision to remove seven city schools from the list of planned closures as proof that “the public education system in New York City is working.
“We do not shut it down,” Simotas said. “What we do is invest in our students, invest in our schools and help them to do better.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris lamented that his alma mater, Long Island City High School, was also included on what he termed “this dumb list” of schools slated to close.
“It is time to stop the demonization of our teachers and administrators,” he stated. “I never hear one single solitary reason … how it would make the lives of these students better in any way whatsoever.”
“If this is the result of mayoral control [of city schools], then mayoral control has failed and we need to reconsider the fact that the city can arbitrarily make decisions that the community is telling you will hurt the students” he charged.
“This is the second year in a row we’ve stood here in this auditorium debating the merits as to whether this school should close,” said District Leader Costa Constantinides. “Last year we thought it was done with.”
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens Borough President’s appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, called the turnaround plan “the most florid policy I have ever seen.”
“We have to give our schools the opportunity to turn themselves around,” he told the crowd, adding that he plans to put forth a resolution at the panel’s Apr. 26 meeting calling for a moratorium on school closures until the DOE can prove to the panel that the turnaround plan is better than previous efforts.
“A ship doesn’t turn on a dime,” Carmignani would later state, urging the DOE to use “a scalpel as opposed to a sledgehammer.”
“I have never seen such a disgraceful lack of support for education that was caused by the anger of a single person: Mayor Bloomberg,” charged Mel Aaronson, the treasurer for the United Federation of Teachers, claiming that the plan was the culmination of the mayor’s efforts to fight the teachers’ union.
The tenor of the hearing was evident as Rodriguez read the details of the DOE’s plan. After a repeated chant of “save our school” from the auditorium forced Rodriguez to stop reading, Bryant Principal Namita Dwarka urged the crowd to “show what the school is all about, and that is respecting each other.”
“She doesn’t show respect to the community!” one resident shouted, leading to another shower of boos and chants.
According to Rodriguez, the DOE has proposed that Dwarka would remain principal of the new school, which would “build on the strongest elements of W.C. Bryant.”
Contrary to reports that half the teachers will not return, all applicants will be individually reviewed by a five-person panel, she stated, and “at least 50 percent” of the teachers will return if enough reapply to teach at the new school.
“There are success stories and we honor those,” said Rodriguez, “but we also need to consider the many students who started … in the ninth grade and have not experienced success.”
As evidence, Rodriguez cited the school’s 57 percent four-year graduation rate (including August grads), below the city’s 65-percent rate in 2011 and representing a decline from the school’s 60 percent rate in 2010.
If new Regents requirements set to take effect next school year were factored in, only 50 percent would have graduated.
In addition, the school received a C grade on its most recent progress report,withaFforstudentperformance, a D on student progress and a B in school environment.
However, several speakers cited statistics of their own as reasons why the school should remain open.
Aaronson noted earlier that the school has a significant population of English Language Learners (18 percent) and special education (12 percent) students. Bryant teacher Anna Balash, citing those numbers, pointed out that the school’s six-year graduation rate is above 60 percent.
“Queens is a highly diverse community, with new people joining this community from all over the world,” she told the crowd. “It can take many years to learn a language proficiently, to learn it well enough to succeed on a high school or college level.”
“Punishing the school by shutting it down,” she added, “is in effect punishing us for providing for the needs of our students.”
Teacher Sam Lazarus, the school’s union representative, claimed that the percentage of seniors deemed “college-ready” by the DOE stands at 38 percent, higher than the city’s 30 percent average.
He added that the school has 62 oversized classes.
“That’s Mayor Bloomberg’s responsibility,” he charged.
“There is an absurdity here. We have an auditorium that is full of students, teachers, former graduates,” he said. “We are all united in our desire to maintain this place.”
“On this other side,” he continued, “we have a small minority funded by very very very rich people who are telling us that this place is no good, that other teachers can somehow do this job better.”
The people speak
The hearing was also marked by an appearance by a group claiming to be an Astoria-based offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A banner held up prior to the meeting was greeted with applause by students, as was speaker Nicholas Levis, the first resident to come to the microphone and comment.
“I do not think it’s right that Wall Street millionaires are using schools for their crazy social experiments. This is The Hunger Games of the one percent,” he charged, in one of several allusions to the hit movie made by speakers.
“We have some of the finest teachers around,” Teman Cambridge, a member of the school football team, said. “They push us, they make us want to be here.”
Teacher Paul Hornstein held up a jersey from Bryant High School’s original baseball team, in colors similar to the school’s current blue-andyellow scheme. He claimed it was given to him by an alumnus.
“If you change this school,” he stated, “you might as well throw this jersey in the shredder because it won’t mean anything anymore.”
“You don’t respect the teachers, you don’t respect the students,” charged teacher Kerry Doyle, an alumnus of the school. “Let teachers teach.”
Mikaela Petradelis, a 2009 graduate of the school, called the meeting “a dog and pony show,” claiming that the DOE’s decision has already been made.
“Mayor Bloomberg does not give a crap about any of these students,” she said.