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City begins early talks with schools it may close next year

Hoping to prevent the public outcry that met city officials last year when they tried to shutter nearly 20 schools, the Department of Education has begun holding meetings at schools that may be closed or overhauled next year.

One of the first of those meetings was held at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn last night, where parents, students, and teachers filled the auditorium to hear high school superintendent Aimeee Horowitz explain what could happen next year. Similar meetings have already taken place at Sheepshead Bay High School and John F. Kennedy High School and will continue as the city and state identify more schools they may want to close or significantly change.

Dewey, Sheepshead, and Kennedy are among 23 “turnaround” schools the city has received federal money to improve. This means that next year the city could close the schools and replace them with a district or charter school; it could fire half of their teaching staffs and principals; or it could decide that they are making progress and just need more funding, new programs, and experienced teachers.

DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said the city has not made any decisions about the schools’ future and likely wouldn’t announce its plans until early December.

“We just want to make sure that parents understand what’s going on and are not caught off guard if we reconfigure the grades or try to do a leadership change,” he said. “We want to get in front of this.”

But with the word “closure” hanging in the air, Dewey’s staff and students were on the defensive, as were members of the John Dewey Alumni Association, who showed up en masse to argue for more support for the school.

Though aware that the school’s graduation rate has been slipping over the years, most were shocked to find Dewey’s name on the state’s list of “persistently low achieving” schools.

“We were surprised at what happened, especially the fact that there was no support for the school,” said an alumna, noting that Dewey has seen an influx of low-performing students from nearby Lafayette High School, which closed last June.

Teachers and students said that budget cuts have also taken their toll on the school, which opened in the 1960s with a performing arts emphasis and now cannot afford to offer the dance or cooking classes that once attracted motivated students. Yet they said that the high school is still able to offer 17 different Advanced Placement courses and a variety of after-school activities.

“Even with budget cuts, we’re still a good school,” said a Dewey senior. “I don’t know why it’s debatable that we be shut down.”

According to Horowitz, Dewey graduated a little more than 57 percent of its students in 2009, which is below the citywide average of 63 percent. “The Asian and white students are basically carrying Dewey’s graduation rate,” she said, noting that only 42 percent of Hispanic students graduated. She also said that student violence has increased in the last several years.

A few parents argued that the school needs to change, but should not be closed.

Corinne Jones, who has sent two children to Dewey, said her oldest daughter did well at the school and went on to graduate from college. But her younger one, who is currently a freshman, is having a harder time.

“It hurts me to see this great school go down,” Jones said. “What did John Dewey do better before 2006?”

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