Students at a struggling Queens Village high school are painting over their past, one locker at a time.
Historical figures, sprawled across obsolete lockers at Martin Van Buren High School, have become symbolic of the new face of the changing school, students and administration said.
“We’re basically trying to paint a picture of a whole new Van Buren,” said art teacher Antonio Montalvo. “We want to create a more welcoming, lighter learning environment. We’re trying to improve.”
Van Buren found itself in the public eye last year when local leaders and parents rallied to replace former principal Marilyn Shevell. Morale plummeted under her leadership, they said, while Van Buren worsened in progress reports. Shevell retired last June after taking over in 2002, education officials said. Since then, interim acting principal Sam Sochet said the school has risen to the challenge of improving.
“Van Buren, at one time, was one of the top schools in the city,” Sochet said. “It has fallen on some harder times recently, and so we’re looking to rediscover the greatness that it used to have and maybe go beyond it.”
An art inclusion class, led by Montalvo, chose scientists Albert Einstein and Alexander Fleming, psychologist Carl Jung and former United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to represent the search for greatness, Sochet said. The project team of 30 students took two months to paint a mural of their caricatures across nearly 90 lockers on the school’s second floor.
“They’re old figures, but they do represent people who worked really hard, people who broke traditional thinking, who really thought outside the box,” Sochet said. “And that’s the idea. These are examples of what the human spirit is capable of.”
The display also promotes Van Buren’s newest college-ready science programs or “majors” for incoming freshmen, said Sanjay Patel, the school’s director of specialized programs.
Graduating middle school applicants can apply to Van Buren’s revamped engineering program, which features the school’s robotics team, or its pre-med, law and forensics, or computer technology programs, Patel said.
“There are a lot of careers available in these areas, and we’re trying to prepare students,” said Assistant Principal Cathy Kross.
Van Buren received a “C” in the Department of Education’s most recent progress report, which is based on student progress toward graduation, performance on standardized tests, coursework and student attendance. The school improved a full letter grade from last year’s “D.”
“The change is happening, although sometimes it’s very difficult to detect,” Sochet said.
Junior Jeshu Dastidar, a first-time honor roll student this year, said the school’s new environment has revived his passion for learning.
“In the last two years, school really wasn’t really in my interest,” said Dastidar, 16. “But this year, the first day I went to class, I was feeling this rhythm. Something was in the air. The school has changed. Grades have gone up tremendously for me personally.”