Queens lawmakers, families rally to save United Nations International School in Jamaica Estates

State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi speaks at a rally with parents, students, and teachers outside of The United Nations International School in Jamaica Estates on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS)

Queens lawmakers joined parents, teachers, alumni and students outside of the United Nations International School (UNIS) in Jamaica for a rally on Friday, Dec. 10, calling on the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, to suspend the decision to close the school. 

The school, located at 173-53 Croydon Rd., is facing closure after the UNIS board of trustees notified the community last month of its decision to permanently close the campus in June 2022, citing enrollment losses and a $2 million deficit.

The drastic decision has been taken without any formal conclusion, process, due diligence or transparency with the families, children, teachers, staff and administrators who are most affected, according to SAVE UNIS Queens, a coalition that was formed to keep the school open that has been in Queens for almost 75 years. 

“Everyone knows this is a gem of a school — it’s in the most ethnically diverse borough in the country. We have a gem of excellence here and we are about to lose it,” said Udai Tambar, a parent and alumni. “Our request has been simple throughout this entire process: to pause this closure and to consult the community, to come up with joint solutions co-creating a path forward that is financially responsible and sustainable.” 

Uday Tambar, a parent and alumni, speaks out against the UNIS board of trustees’ decision to close the Jamaica campus in June 2022. (Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS)

As a health care worker and parent, Jeremy Beitler says he felt a profound sense of betrayal when the school’s board of trustees voted to close UNIS Queens in the midst of a pandemic that has upended the lives of families and their children. 

“When two board members came to present their decision to our community, one disclosed that she had never even set foot before on this campus. She claimed that it was her decision and that she did not need to visit a school or its community to make an informed decision,” Beitler said. “So let’s clarify what that means — a member of the UN school’s board of trustees thought it was OK to vote to disband this community, without knowing anything about it except a few budget lines on an Excel sheet.” 

Parent Jeremy Beitler shared his concerns about the school’s closure. (Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS)

The United Nations International School consists of 1,600 students between two campuses: 130 in Queens (kindergarten through eighth grade) and 1,470 in Manhattan (pre-K through 12). Its student body is the most diverse in the world, representing 109 countries and speaking 91 languages. 

According to UNIS Queens, the campus was founded in 1947 as a small nursery school by UN parents who wanted to ensure that their children could maintain their cultural identities, and an education that would enable them to return to any national education system. Gradually, more grades were added, and admissions were open to non-UN students who could follow the program of study. 

Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS

Alex, 13, has been attending UNIS Queens since kindergarten and said the school has become a big part of her childhood and life, having met loyal friends and smart, caring teachers.

“During COVID, when I was an online student, they not only spent extra time making sure I had the proper education of any other kid, they made sure that every single student that walked through those doors was appreciated and came out educated,” Alex said. “I have learned three languages (English, Spanish and French) and so will every single student standing here on the sidewalk. Our teachers are fluent speakers, from France and Spain. They came to UNIS Queens for a reason and I think they should stay.” 

Another student, Anna, shared her thoughts on the board’s decision to close the school. 

“It’s not because we don’t have enough money, we have so much money and I don’t know why the board thinks they can shut down the school,” Anna said. “For about five years they’ve hid this and kept it a secret that not a lot of kids have been enrolled. They could’ve told the parents and I have a lot of friends that could’ve come to this school.” 

In their fight to keep the campus open, parents, students, faculty, alumni and community members have launched an online petition that has received 2,095 signatures.

Last month, the group held a candlelight rally outside of the school and the Parents Association of UNIS sent a letter to Guterres regarding their concerns. 

The school community is also receiving support from Queens elected officials who are on the front lines of the matter, as a total of 20 lawmakers have sent a joint letter to Guterres. The legislators expressed their concern with the impact of the school’s closing on students represented in their constituencies, as current plans would relocate children to the UNIS Manhattan campus, thereby extending the commute of children by more than one hour in each direction. 

Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS

The representatives cited studies that declared a children’s mental health emergency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that the extended commute and uprooting of children from their home environment would exacerbate many of these problems. 

“We want them to know that Manhattan is a thing of the past. We want our children in Queens to not have to travel outside of their community or borough to have a quality education,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said at the rally. “Anything that does not properly engage students or parents and educators, is nothing more than a broken system.” 

Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi said that children, parents and school faculty have gone above and beyond these last 20 months to navigate life and schooling in the pandemic. 

“They don’t need more uncertainty forced upon them with the closing of their school that has become a second home,” Hevesi said. 

State Assemblyman David Weprin (Photo by Carlotta Mohamed)

Assemblyman David Weprin said he hopes that a constructive dialogue can be held and that the decision to close UNIS Queens will be reconsidered and reversed. 

“Part of the problem is lack of transparency, lack of information and lack of communication as to why they’re really closing. If it’s a question of being short of students, we’re in a pandemic and we have been for the better part of the last two years; this isn’t the only school that has pandemic issues,” Weprin said. “If it’s a question of recruiting more students, that can be done easily. Hopefully, once the word gets out about what has been happening, we can get everyone together.” 

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