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As closure hearings begin, format changes but opposition stays

School closure season began in earnest this week, as city officials began to hold required public hearings at each of the 25 district schools it hopes to shutter. But in contrast to last year’s meetings — where officials often sat impassively as school supporters emotionally protested the closures — officials are now using the hearings to directly respond to attendees’ criticisms and concerns.

At Queens’ Beach Channel High School, which held its hearing Thursday evening, the meeting format had changed, but the anger over the proposed closure — while quieter than last year’s — was still palpable.

At last year’s hearing, vocal supporters of Beach Channel did not turn out in the vast numbers as supporters of other schools slated for closure like Jamaica High School, but those who did were passionate about saving the last zoned high school in the Rockaways.

This year, a smaller but still fervent crowd came to the school to make many of the same arguments. The closure of Far Rockaways High School had flooded Beach Channel with needy students just as the school’s budget began to be slashed, they maintained.  And they argued that the Rockaways community needs a zoned high school, lest students be forced into long commutes to other, overcrowded high schools in Queens.

“Right now there is no incentive to send a local child to this school,” said LaVern Powell, who has taught living environment and human biology at Beach Channel since 2003.

Powell painted a picture of the challenges the school faces: out of 32 students enrolled in his first period class, he said, only six are currently eligible to pass. The rest are not allowed to pass because they have not attended the minimum number of classes.

“We’re good, but we’re not miracle workers,” he said. “It’s going to take a while to turn these kids around.”

Chris Petrillo, who graduated from Beach Channel last year and who became one of the school’s most outspoken supporters, argued that the city could have prevented the school’s academic slide with better supports and resources for its students.

“I would like to say that the [Department of Education] failed this school and if that is the case, there should be a reorganization there,” he said.

Of the 13 people who spoke during the public comment portion of the evening, none were current parents or students at the school. Three of the speakers were alumni; the rest were teachers either at Beach Channel or at other schools around the city.

Last year’s closure hearings left many supporters of the schools feeling frustrated and ignored. A city official would typically open the hearing by reading from the short list of statistics provided in last year’s educational impact statements and then cede the floor to public comment, rarely responding directly to any of the concerns raised.

This year, by contrast, officials began the meeting with several longer presentations, including one from the Queens high school superintendent Juan Mendez. A representative from the Citywide Council on High Schools, comprised of parents, also spoke.

And after the public comment — in a show of interactivity that was almost non-existent last year — Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky addressed what he called the “real honest disagreement” between the speakers and city officials head on.

Speaking in the language of conflict resolution mediators and relationship therapists, Polakow-Suransky frequently repeated back concerns raised in public comment, as if to re-assure the audience that he had paid attention.

“There is a very strong belief among the faculty that with an influx of funds, the school can be improved,” he said, but argued that dramatically restructuring the school was necessary. “It is very, very rare — there are very few examples where you put in additional funds and don’t do additional restructuring where you see dramatic gains.”

Still, the hearing’s attendees were pessimistic that their protests were being heard or would have any impact on the fate of the school, which will be decided next month at a vote of the Panel for Educational Policy.

“They have their agenda, and what they’re trying to do is close the school no matter what,” Powell, the Beach Channel biology teacher, said.