A who’s who of elected officials and Harlem leaders turned out Thursday to defend the Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing Arts against the Department of Education’s plan to close its middle school.
About 200 parents, students, activists, and staff packed the school’s auditorium Thursday evening for a public hearing on the proposal. Just before, officials who included City Councilman Robert Jackson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Sen. Bill Perkins, and Comptroller John Liu all held court in the packed lobby of the Harlem campus. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the city’s NAACP chief, Hazel Dukes, also spoke at the hearing.
They said the city was giving up on a neighborhood institution by moving to close Wadleigh’s middle school. Jackson promised to call Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott today to air his opposition to the plan.
Wadleigh’s 440-student high school would remain open under the plan, as would another middle school in the building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, which narrowly escaped closure this year after earning an even lower progress report score than Wadleigh’s middle school. A charter school, Harlem Success Academy I, is set to move its middle school grades into the building, according to a plan the city set last year.
The charter school co-location plan drew quick and fierce fire during the hearing. Perkins, an outspoken critic of charter schools, said Harlem Success had a track record of an “antagonistic relationship” with the local community and should not be given more space.
Department of Education officials said they sought to close Wadleigh’s middle school not to make room for the charter school but simply because keeping it up and running is unsustainable. It has just 94 students and last year earned a D on the progress reports the city uses to judge schools.
“With a school that is performing at this level at this size, is it possible to make it successful?” asked Shael Polakow-Suransky, a deputy chancellor, during the hearing.
In response, shouts of “Yes” emanated from the audience, which frequently interjected through the five-hour-long hearing. At times, they chanted until officials were drowned out.
Anthony Klug, a teacher and the school’s union chapter leader, said the departure of a math coach, guidance counselor, and dean had caused the middle school’s performance dip last year. Restoring those resources would help turn the school around, he said.
He drew cheers when he told the DOE officials listening to the testimony, “Closing a school is not difficult to do. It’s assisting the school that’s difficult.”
Klug told me he believes the middle school’s closure would “significantly negatively impact, if not destroy,” the high school’s arts programs.
“We have eight arts and specialty rooms, and so basically the last two years they were trying to colocate a third school in the building, not recognizing that these arts rooms take more space than schools that don’t offer these programs,” he said. “Dance kids are going to need more than a 500-square-foot room. Shrinking our school is the first step to ending [that program].”
Polakow-Suransky said during the hearing the building had more than enough space for Wadleigh to share space with another school and also maintain its arts programs.
But closing the middle school could take a different toll on Wadleigh’s arts programs, by reducing the number of students prepared to participate in them in high school, people said at the hearing.
The comments developed a theme that supporters of another performing arts school, who included staff from Wadleigh, outlined at its closure hearing earlier this week. Closing arts schools that serve low-income students would cut off a rare option for those students, argued supporters of both Manhattan Theatre Lab High School and Wadleigh. The schools have a close relationship: In 2006 Evelyn Collins left her job as Wadleigh’s assistant principal for the arts to head Manhattan Theatre Lab.
A handful of middle and high school students were the first to speak at the hearing. Standing in a line on the performance stage, the students said the school’s performing arts focus draws neighborhood students like themselves.
“This is a visual arts school that is trying to make the arts better so we can fulfill our dreams,” said sixth-grader Tiane Jackson. “Do you really want to be responsible for crushing dreams?”
Hall, Wadleigh’s principal, did not speak during the hearing. But FDA II’s principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, went to bat for Wadleigh.
“We serve the same students, we serve the same community,” he said. “Our school has some of the same struggles that Wadleigh has. We are working tirelessly every day to make it better.”