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Borough President Stringer enters the school closing fray

Tonight marks the beginning of school-closing-season: a 20-day race through mandatory public hearings at all of the schools before a grand showdown at the Panel for Educational policy meeting on January 26.

At the first meeting of the season, taking place tonight at the Academy of Environmental Science, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is calling on Department of Education officials to prove that they tried various ways of helping the school succeed before declaring it failed. In his prepared remarks, he says:

Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and others at the DOE must own their role in a schools’ performance, whether it is good or bad. The Department’s Educational Impact Statements show that that 20 schools are failing to make the grade, but I do not see evidence of the measures that DOE has taken to get these schools on their feet. I do not see evidence of benchmarks that the DOE has set for itself to help move schools forward, benchmarks the Department should have to meet before it can make the decision to close a school.

The rest of his testimony follows:

Testimony of Manhattan Borough President

Scott M. Stringer

Regarding the Educational Impact Statement of the Proposed

Phase-Out and Eventual Closure of Academy of Environmental Science High School (04M635) and Co-location of Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation

January 5, 2010

We are here tonight to discuss the Department of Education’s proposal to phase out the Academy of Environmental Science, which the Department has said is failing its students.

Tonight is one of the first hearings under the new governance structure I and others called for, and which the legislature granted when it reauthorized mayoral control. This hearing is a good thing. Tonight, we stand with backing from the State to discuss changes that DOE has proposed to our schools. It is, however, troubling that multiple hearings have been scheduled for the same time, making it impossible for PEP representatives like my appointee, Patrick Sullivan, to attend every hearing. So the bad news is that this hearing will be meaningless if DOE refuses to consider altering its plans based on community input.

The Academy of Environmental Science is a part of the local community, and its history no more or less integral than a place of worship, a main street, or a hospital. The school has a longstanding commitment to helping its students meet the challenges that will emerge as we move ever forward into a green economy. A team from the school won the Citywide Envirothon competition this past year. When students in this school learned of DOE’s plans to shut the doors, they marched up to 125th street, to speak with their local elected officials.

The Academy of Environmental Science has educated thousands of East Harlem residents for the past three decades, and currently serves 450 students in grades 8 through 12. 11 percent of these students are English language learners. An additional twenty percent of the school’s students receive special education services, 43 percent of whom are considered self contained or high needs students. The school has had poor success rates according to DOE’s measures, though not the worst in the borough.

I believe that you have to respect the sweat equity of building a school over decades. Closing schools should be the last resort — not a primary, reactive response to failure. School closures come at a high cost, not the least of which is the destabilization of communities and weakening of parent engagement. A report released by the New School shows further fallout from closing schools in recent years, including:

  • The displacement and discharge of English language learners, special education students, and other “at-risk” students who are left with inadequate support to find a school with the appropriate specialized services when their schools close;
  • The demise and eventual collapse of other large city high schools, which have the capacity to offer crucial specialized services and vocational training for our kids at greatest risk of dropping out.

I do not come here tonight with the expectation that the city’s skyline will never change, or the belief that every school should always remain open. I simply want criteria, rationale, and transparency before the City adopts changes. For example, the Educational Impact Statements that DOE released for these schools show detailed measures of the schools’ progress, which contribute to the Department’s decision to shut them down. Yet the accuracy of these measures has been questioned, raising concerns about how and why the decision to phase out each school has been made.

Furthermore, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and others at the DOE must own their role in a schools’ performance, whether it is good or bad. The Department’s Educational Impact Statements show that that 20 schools are failing to make the grade, but I do not see evidence of the measures that DOE has taken to get these schools on their feet. I do not see evidence of benchmarks that the DOE has set for itself to help move schools forward, benchmarks the Department should have to meet before it can make the decision to close a school.

The DOE owes the Academy of Environmental Science and the 19 other schools on the chopping block a transparent and comprehensive explanation as to how it determined that it has no choice but to shut down each of these schools.

If DOE moves forward with this plan, at a minimum, it should provide a clear indication as to what concrete plans have been put in place to address the costs that will come from closing these schools, including:

1. Releasing Educational Impact Statements that include information about the steps DOE took to save schools before making the decision to close them;

2. An explanation of the supports and systems the Department has put in place for ELLs, Special Education and high needs students, so when it closes these 20 schools, they are not left hung out to dry, as they have been to date;

3. A clear plan for implementing support in receiving schools that will experience increased levels of enrollment, so they do not find themselves in the same position as the school that closed, and we do not find ourselves together in an auditorium this time, next year, having the same discussion.

We do not want our kids to be victims of the status quo.

We also do not want them to be victims of reactive DOE policies that look great on paper, but which in the long run do more damage than good. I know that the Chancellor likes to think of himself as a CEO. But shutting down a neighborhood school and asking families to rebuild relationships that may go back decades is not the same as shutting down a McDonald’s franchise and asking customers to go around the corner to a Burger King.

True accountability includes a willingness by DOE to be transparent about the actions it has taken to help schools with the challenges they face, and to acknowledge its responsibility when it fails to meet benchmarks to help schools progress. In the long run, this is what is in the best interest of our kids, and it is the best way to support those charged with helping them become engaged learners, and strong participants in our democracy.

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