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Black defends closure at school where there's little opposition

As the snow began to fall last night, Chancellor Cathie Black headed to Harlem’s I.S. 195 to attend her first public hearing at one of the 25 schools the city wants to shutter.

The city has been holding hearings at each of the schools slated for closure all this month in advance of next week’s Panel for Educational Policy vote on the plans. At some of the closure hearings, city officials have faced off with angry, passionate crowds protesting the city’s plans.

Black did not see that anger at last night’s meeting, which no parents attended, reported WNYC’s Beth Fertig. The bad weather may have discouraged turnout, but the school’s chapter leader also told Fertig that the school has struggled with parent involvement and the city’s teachers union has not mobilized to challenge the school’s closure as it has elsewhere.

Earlier this month, Black paid a visit both to both I.S. 195 and the charter school that shares the building, KIPP Infinity. The district middle school, whose progress report grade dropped from a B to a D last year, was the first school school slated to close that Black visited. The city plans to use the space vacated by I.S. 195 to re-site KIPP’s high school and open a new district middle school, though the details of the plan have not yet been announced.

After the hearing, Fertig and a few other reporters got the chance to speak with Black. The chancellor discussed why city officials made the decision to close 25 schools this year, last week’s rowdy PEP meeting, and her decision to delay planned special education reforms by a year.

Here’s the full audio and a transcript of their conversation. Fertig’s full report on the meeting is available here. WNYC and GothamSchools are partnering on The Big Fix, an ongoing series examining the city’s efforts to improve low-performing schools.

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Reporter: So Chancellor, I just wanted to know first of all, why did you decide to come tonight?

Black: I think it’s very important. You know, I will attend as many meetings as I possibly can. Last night I did a town hall, tonight a joint public hearing, next week we have the two panel meetings. It’s all a part of being the chancellor, of reaching out, of being – hearing what’s on people’s minds. I mean, we — these are hard, I mean, this is a difficult — it might have been a quiet evening but it’s still difficult for everybody.

But we believe deeply that the option of putting a different school, a different approach in this physical building, is going to be better for the children. And when you look at the statistics, you know, how could anybody — how could a parent want their child to be in a school that’s so underperforming?

That’s why I wanted to visit here — which I did a couple of weeks ago — and the contrast between seeing what the KIPP school in this building has done, and walking around and I spent time with the principal. But this is probably – our team has been here 3, 4, 5 times in the past year, so this is nothing that is quick. We’ve learned, frankly — I saw “we” collectively — from 2009 to 2010, over 2010 — for any of the schools that we were taking a very significant look at, we’ve been back multiple times, multiple conversations with principals, with the senior leadership team, teachers, you know the whole thing, getting a sense.

And at a certain point you come to a decision and say, “we believe there are other options.” And that is what all our whole agenda is all about — choice and options. And we believe that the school that we will put in here is going to be a better option for these children in an intermediate setting than what has been serving this community.

Reporter: While there was not very much feedback tonight, I’m wondering, have you been getting an earful about the closing process so far?

I think what we hear is that people — you know, we’re in New York, people have strong opinions. Sometimes they tend to sort of ignore the facts and just have an emotional commitment. So certainly there’s been a lot of response — everyone’s got a different point of view.

Reporter: You were at that PEP meeting last week, which was – the temperature was a bit hotter and a lot people were talking about school closings. What did you think about that and the way you were greeted?

It’s exactly what I expected. You know this happened to Joel, in different ways, and so I left my Blackberry at home [laughter] — well, that’s not actually true, I left it in my pocketbook; there were moments when I thought, “you know if I could just spend about 10 minutes, I’ll listen to you guys.” But you know, I kind of just listened, I was interested, I wanted to hear what they had to say. The crazy stuff I didn’t pay attention to.

Reporter: What was the crazy stuff?

[At this point, a DOE press officer interrupts, saying, “I think that’s it.” They then decide to take one more question from another reporter.]

Reporter: Since you’ve been chancellor, there have been a couple of things which I like to look at as sort of maybe moves away from…pushing forward with something, and maybe towards a more gradual process. Like for example, the special education reform being delayed a year, or the bonuses, maybe let’s suspend that…

I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. Really, I would not jump to a conclusion. I am the pedal to the metal on reform. But I think that we also want to make sure that for something as important to so many constituents as special ed I mean we want to make sure that we have thought about everything because if were going to scale something up it has got to work. It’s too important. So this was a collective decision, it was not Cathie saying, “lets really sort of” —none of it was a rethink. It is only making sure that we have thought of every single thing to make it a success for these children.

[DOE press officer: Okay, great, that’s your question; let’s let her get home.]

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