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Parents want their struggling school to get more time to improve

Parents at a school they say was left to fail by a former principal are hoping that a new administration can keep the school doors open.

After receiving a failing grade on its progress report this year, I.S. 171 in Cypress Hills is one of 20 schools the Department of Education is publicly considering for closure. But at a meeting to discuss the school’s future Wednesday evening, parents, students and alumni said the school shouldn’t be judged based on its past performance because new school leadership has already begun to turn things around.

First-year principal Barbara Kendall was hired a week before the year began after former principal Yolanda Fustanio resigned at the end of the last school year. Parents and students complained that under Fustanio’s leadership, enforcement of the school’s discipline code eroded so badly that the school had become unsafe.

“The hallways were like traffic in Times Square,” a sixth-grade girl said at the meeting.

Shamona Kirkland, a District 19 Community Education Council member whose son is in seventh grade at I.S. 171, said Fustanio had turned into an absentee principal by the end of her tenure.

“I saw her maybe once or twice the whole school year,” Kirkland said. “I had to keep reminding myself what her name was every time I saw her.”

The comments came at an “early engagement” meeting with Rosemary Mills, District 19’s superintendent, in the school’s auditorium. It was part of a series of meetings that the DOE is organizing for each of the low-performing schools before it decides whether to shutter them. Two other meetings at I.S. 171 included officials from the United Federation of Teachers and the school’s internal leadership team.

The meeting with Mills attracted about 120 people, many of whom had the meeting interpreted for them through headsets. A large percentage of the 800-plus student body is Hispanic and 23 percent are classified as English language learners.

Mills told the audience that their school would either be phased out — one grade at a time — or would adopt a intervention plan that targets the school’s greatest weaknesses. Then Mills opened the floor to parents and asked them for feedback on what worked at the school and what did not.

Some parents who spoke said the school needed greater parent engagement and others lauded the after-school programming, which included theater productions of “In The Heights” and “Rent” in recent years.

But many of them noted that since the school year began, they had noticed a vast improvement in their children’s work habits and school culture. Most of them credited Kendall.

“She told us that as a team we can work together and she made us feel like we were part of the team,” Kirkland said.

Kendall said that when she started at I.S. 171 on Sept. 1, her first order of business was to reinstate a sense of order. She assigned school aides to closely monitor the halls and implemented a policy that requires teachers to lock classroom doors when their class is in session so that, she said, “in any instant, children are accounted for.”

“There was a major issue of safety so once I got here and I realized I had to set that tone and discipline,” said Kendall who previously worked as an assistant principal for 10 years at Robert A. Van Wyck Middle School in Queens.

Despite the vote of confidence, Kendall remains an interim principal and the process to hire her for the permanent position begins next month, Mills said.

A decision on the school’s future will likely come in early December.