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Spike in anti-school closure protests begins to heat up the winter

Tis the season to light candles, exchange gifts, visit family — and protest school closures?

Last week marked the beginning of what promises to be an unusually heated season of rallies organized by opponents of the city’s plan to close 20 schools.

Some activists point to a heightened sensitivity around this year’s school closings. But the spike in public demonstrations may also be due to changes in school governance law that has required DOE officials to explain and defend their closure proposals in public, where those decisions were once made behind closed doors.

“I think the amount of activity this year is definitely unusual,” said parent activist Leonie Haimson. “Among people who pay attention to these things, I think there’s an overwhelming sense of enough is enough and an attitude that we’re going to fight back.”

This afternoon, teachers union head Michael Mulgrew will join parents and City Council members to protest school closings on the steps of Tweed Courthouse.

Last week, hundreds of students, parents and teachers rallied against the closure of Jamaica High School in Queens. Smaller protest gatherings were also held at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, Metropolitan Corporate Academy and Maxwell High School in Brooklyn. Much of last week’s four-hour-long citywide school board meeting was spent in public comment session as students and teachers vented their frustration at the proposed school phase-outs.

And in the new year, the frequency of demonstrations against closings is expected to increase. According to a list of demonstrations circulated by the city teachers union, events are being planned at schools slated for closure for nearly every weekday during the first two weeks of the year. Members of an internal opposition group within the UFT have begun to organize a January protest at City Hall or at the residence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A UFT official said union representatives met with teachers at all of the schools facing closure, offering support to anyone who wanted to fight. Teachers at more than half the schools accepted the offer, he said. Some teachers, such as those at Jamaica, used UFT phone banks to encourage parents and teachers to attend Wednesday’s rally against closing the high school.

Schools were given more advance warning because of a newly-mandated 45-day comment period before a final decision can be made, Haimson said. Public hearings now required to be held at each school slated for closure give opponents a natural platform for organized protests. And the January 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting, the first public vote on school closures since the DOE began shuttering schools in the 2004-05 school year, will likely draw teachers and families from all over the city to Brooklyn Tech’s thousand-seat auditorium.

Haimson said that while the changes in governance laws have made a difference, a more important factor has been an increased awareness of the consequences of school closures for students and teachers. “The first few rounds, there wasn’t enough of an understanding about the effects of the situation,” she said.

Norm Scott, an activist and member of an opposition party within the UFT, said that an increase in the number of schools slated for closure may correspond to an increase in protests. The DOE announced plans to shutter 20 schools this year, more than in previous rounds — last year, 12 schools began to phase out, and 15 the year before that.

Scott also said there may also be a greater level of surprise at which schools were selected in this round of closings. “Now what they’ve done is take schools where people are really shocked,” he said. Some of the schools slated for closure have received bonuses for the past two years for reaching their performance targets on state tests, and other schools with lower graduation rates dodged the ax.

Each round of school closings has been controversial. A DOE official said that opposition against closures this round has not reached the level it did last year, when a group of parents, community leaders and the UFT sued to prevent the DOE from closing three elementary schools and replacing them with charter schools. The DOE backed off that plan in April.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which will have the final say on each school’s closure, has never voted down a DOE proposal. But last week the DOE withdrew a proposal to eliminate the sixth grade from a Bronx school after parent and community members protested.

Klein told reporters earlier this month that there was a chance that public feedback could change the minds of DOE officials. “These are well thought-through decisions, but I don’t foreclose the possibility based on what we hear that we’ll come to a different final decision,” he said.

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