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Jamaica HS union leader says teachers saw closure coming

The head of the union chapter at Jamaica High School said teachers there have been expecting the school’s closure for years and criticized the city for planning to open new small schools without offering help to the struggling large one.

James Eterno, a history teacher at Jamaica for 24 years, said teachers anticipated bad news after the school received a D on its progress report this year. But signs that the 1,500-student high school was in trouble had been apparent for years, he said.

In 2007, Jamaica was placed on a citywide list of schools labeled “persistently dangerous,” and letters were sent home to students and parents informing them of the designation. Enrollment dropped, Eterno said, and when Jamaica became the last choice of eighth-grade students applying to high schools, a new population of students who were less enthusiastic about school entered the school. (Eterno laid out this story in a community section post about Queens high schools back in September.)

Of the school’s roughly 500 ninth grade students, slightly less than half did not apply to the school but were placed there after they moved to Queens, sometimes from other countries and knowing little English, Eterno said.

“What [the city] should have done and what they could have done was to give us the funding, let us lower class size, let us have reasonable guidance caseloads and let us see if it works,” Eterno said. “Then if it doesn’t work, then you can make the case to close us down.”

Eterno, who is running for president of the teachers union this spring, said he learned of Jamaica’s proposed closure this morning in a meeting with the school’s principal and superintendent. Administrators told him the DOE planned to open two new small schools in Jamaica’s building next year: a high school and a school serving grades 6-12.

A spokesman for the DOE, Will Havemann, said the department would not comment on schools going into Jamaica next year. He said new schools opening in the fall will be announced in early 2010.

“We have a record of taking buildings that have a hard time attracting students and turning them into places where students want to go and we have every intention of continuing that work at Jamaica,” Havemann said.

Listing the overcrowded high schools in the area, Eterno wondered where eighth-grade students who would have otherwise gone to Jamaica would enroll next year. In their first year, small schools typically have incoming classes of just over 100 students. Jamaica has five times that many in its current ninth grade.

“Two start-up schools at Jamaica next year won’t do a darn thing to dent the overcrowding. So how does that help anybody?” Eterno said.

Havemann said the two high schools placed in Jamaica would be designed with the borough’s overcrowding in mind.

“We believe that by putting new and better options in the building, we’ll be able to better serve students and reduce the enrollment burden,” he said.

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