Yesterday’s riot at Murry Bergtraum High School was the culmination of tensions that have simmered in the school since the arrival of a new principal this year, students said today.
Teachers said hundreds of students began running through the hallways, screaming and pushing each other, after new executive principal Andrea Lewis told students that the schools’ bathrooms would be closed for the day. But students said the incident was fueled by frustration over changes Lewis has made since she became principal at the beginning of this year.
City officials placed Lewis in Bergtraum in July as a “superprincipal” charged with improving the struggling school. Lewis will receive a $25,000 bonus for agreeing to lead the lower Manhattan school for three years.
Bergtraum has struggled with safety and overcrowding issues and received a D on last year’s progress report. Lewis’ previous school, ACORN Community High School, repeatedly received high grades on DOE-issued progress report cards.
Students said that since her arrival at Bergtraum, Lewis has changed grading practices, made it mandatory for teachers to assign homework, and altered the curriculum. Some of those changes have bred resentment among students, they said.
“The new principal is trying to make it better I guess,” said one senior. “But she’s going about it the wrong way.”
“It’s not all about the bathroom,” added another student. “She’s made a lot more changes also.”
A sophomore at the school said he opposed the changes Lewis has made to the music curriculum.
“It used to be, we talk about different types of music, sing every now and then,” the student said. “Now she wants us to treat it like it’s English and history put together….Why do we have to add other aspects when it’s not necessary?”
Other students reported that their teachers were also feeling frustrated. “A lot of teachers have commented also how they don’t like how she’s making changes to their teaching,” said one student. “They’ve been there for years and now they’re changing their skills.”
A student who commented on GothamSchools described a school environment perpetually in flux. The commenter wrote:
“She makes us sit in U shapes and then the next week she decides she doesn’t like that and she wants groups of four and then back to the U shapes…most of our teachers teach how they think is best.”
Another sticking point was a canceled senior cruise, students said.
Many students said they preferred the leadership style of Barbara Esmilla, the former principal of the school.
“[Esmilla] wasn’t a mean-type person,” said one student. “If something happened to you, she [would] take both sides of the story.” By contrast, he said, Lewis gives the students little leeway. “No chances, no grace, no nothing,” he said.
ACORN Community, Lewis’s previous school, received an A on its progress report card last year. ACORN currently has about 750 students enrolled. In the Learning Environment Survey, a third of students reported feeling unsafe while in the hallways, bathrooms, and locker rooms. Forty percent of teachers at ACORN said that Lewis was not an effective manager. However, most teachers said that order and discipline were maintained at the school.
Murry Bergtraum has more than 2,600 students and has reported repeated instances of fighting.
Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew spent much of the morning in a meeting with Bergtraum’s teachers. He said that underlying issues at the school have gone unnoticed because there’s little incentive for school administrators to report violence.
“The DOE judges school safety based on data, which is nice,” Mulgrew said. “But if you tell a school that their school is unsafe based on incidents, what do you do? You report less incidents.”
Students predicted that the riot was unlikely to prompt any lasting changes. Asked whether there had been any talk of rioting before, one student said, “Nah, it just happened.”