Rich Hill High rallies for keeping its annex

By Sarina Trangle

A new district school may have its name printed in the city’s high school brochure, but Richmond Hill High School says legacy is displayed on the building where the new school is slated to open.

“They’re coming into a community where they think that we’re ignorant, we’re uneducated … they’re messing with the wrong people,” said PTA Co-President Cheryl Rose. “They may have their name on the brochure, we have our name on the building.”

Dozen of students, staff and parents filed into the Richmond Hill High School auditorium Tuesday night to denounce the city Department of Education’s plans to remove Richmond Hill students from an annex created in an old Catholic school building, at 94-25 117th St., and turn the space over to a new district school — EPIC High School North — beginning next fall.

The PTA said the move would force Richmond Hill HS to absorb close to 500 freshmen who currently attend class in the annex in the school’s main building, at 89-30 114th St., or the 22 trailers parked on campus.

They are worried classrooms will become overcrowded and the transition may threaten a special program established in the trailers for those learning English.

State Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) and state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) rallied behind a lawsuit city Public Advocate Letitia James filed seeking to reverse the DOE’s facility changes at Richmond Hill and halt dozens of co-locations across the city.

Weprin emphasized that he had secured a second district office in Richmond Hill, which he plans to formally open within a week or two — an announcement likely made in reaction to a South Asian lawyer supposedly eyeing his seat who showed up at the town hall Tuesday.

The public advocate said precedent from the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education case would carry in the current court case, where she is arguing the psychological damage imposed on educating English language learners in trailers or not having facilities to meet special education students’ needs is unacceptable.

“It is separate and unequal,” she said, noting that city Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña accepted her invitation to tour the campus of trailers outside Richmond Hill HS.

Charles DiBenedetto, the school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, said Richmond Hill was expected to receive the same number of students next year and a similar budget, but manage without the space it previously had in the annex.

He said the school struggles to accommodate the roughly 200 students who get routed to Richmond Hill at mid-year because they recently immigrated, moved into a shelter or did not have their needs met at other schools.

Because these so-called over-the-counter students are not reflected in schools’ budgets, those who have personalized education programs for special needs — about 50 percent — often are not given the smaller class sizes or staffing attention they are legally entitled to, DiBenedetto said.

“We won’t have the time to give them the one-to-one that they need,” he said. “How is that fair?”

The DOE declined to comment, saying it could not discuss pending litigation.

Both Weprin and attorney Ali Najmi, who helped redraw Weprin’s district to include immigrants in Richmond Hill and has since registered a committee with the state Board of Elections for a possible campaign, said they hoped some of the $2 billion in bonds the state has set aside for schools could be used to replace Richmond Hill’s trailers with traditional classrooms.

Najmi, who worked as a legislative director for the assemblyman’s brother, City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), handed out a copy of a memo he sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio on the trailers.

“I want to first of all think the public advocate, Letitia James, who has in four months of being in office jumped on this issue of making Richmond Hill her highest priority …. some people have never done this in the neighborhood in years; she did this in four months,” Najmi said. “Richmond Hill High School has 6 percent of all the trailers in the New York City school system. That’s outrageous.”

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.