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Queens school resists changes but not funds tied to them

Hundreds of Bryant High School students in school t-shirts and jerseys came to a meeting last night to insist their school isn't failing.
Hundreds of Bryant High School students in school t-shirts and jerseys came to a meeting last night to insist their school isn't failing.

At a public meeting at a Queens high school last night, students and teachers found themselves caught in the quandary that often accompanies school change. They want the money that accompanies a set of federal improvement plans, but they don’t want the plans themselves.

Students and staff have worried that the city will try to close William Bryant High School since it landed on the state’s “persistently lowest achieving” list in December. Instead, the city is considering two other options dictated by the Obama administration’s school improvement grant program. The options would send millions of dollars to Bryant over the next several years in exchange for dramatic changes to the school’s staff.

At the meeting last night, audience members alternately supported the turnaround plans and pushed back against any proposed disruptions to their school.

Told that Bryant was eligible for up to $2 million over the next three years, they applauded. But when Queens high school Superintendent Juan Melendez mentioned the two improvement options that Bryant might undergo — both of which call for the principal’s removal — they told him to leave Bryant be.

“Don’t change the formula,” said State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a Bryant alumna. “I am confident that this is a school on the rise.”

According to the city, Bryant had a graduation rate of nearly 60 percent last year. That was among the lowest in the city, but an improvement over the school’s graduation rate of 56 percent the year before. Teachers said that the latest figure excludes six students who graduated after summer school and are contesting the school’s “persistently lowest-achieving” designation.

In a plea for the school to stay as it is, students and alumni said they planned to come back to Bryant to work as teachers. Current teachers said they planned to send their children there.

“My dream is to be a teacher and a coach at Bryant High School,” said Amdad Arshad, a 2009 graduate. “Don’t break down Bryant.”

Neither of the two options available to the city would break Bryant down in the way that some large schools are turned into smaller schools, but both of them would require dramatic changes.

The least invasive of these options, known as the “transformation” method, is already being used by eleven city schools. This model relies on removing a school’s principal, bringing in extra support services, and experimenting with longer school days and new teacher training.

In comparison, the “turnaround” model is like a root canal for a school. It calls for a school’s principal to be replaced and its teachers and administrators to reapply for their jobs. Only 50 percent of the staff can be rehired, but the students remain the same. In some respects, it is similar to the process the city currently uses to phase-out schools and open new ones in their stead, except that in the “turnaround” model, the school retains its name and does not change the type of students it admits.

City and union officials are still negotiating the rules around implementing the turnaround model and, thus far, have not made much progress toward an agreement.

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