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City panel votes to close three more schools, bringing total to 27

Three more schools will begin closing next year, following a vote by the citywide school board last night that brought the total of schools closed this year to 27.

Members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close two transfer schools — Pacific High School and the Bronx Academy High School — as well as P.S. 30, an elementary school in Queens. A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of education said that, including the decision to shutter Ross Global Charter School, 27 schools will begin closing next year.

It was Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s first panel meeting since Mayor Bloomberg named him to the post. Walcott said he hoped to change the tenor of the meetings by answering parents’ questions and publicly debating policy issues at a deeper level than his predecessors did.

Walcott began the meeting by walking down from the stage and into the crowd, where he promised parents, teachers, and students that he and his staff would respect them.

“You will never hear me be disagreeable with you,” he said. “The one thing we understand is these are emotional issues for you…the approach we’re going to take moving forward is be responsive to those issues even when we don’t agree.”

If audience members heard Walcott’s plea for civility, they betrayed no signs. The boos and catcalls that have peppered panel meetings for months reappeared last night, as did animosity between charter school supporters and the district schools they will have to share space with next year.

Wearing light blue shirts, parents and teachers from Coney Island Prep Charter School sat across the aisle from parents of students and teachers at I.S. 303, who wore orange shirts. Per tonight’s panel vote, Coney Island Prep will move into I.S. 303’s building next year, claiming classrooms that the middle school’s teachers said they need for high-needs special education students, but that city education officials have decided they can do without. Throughout the evening, parents and teachers from the two schools traded shots over which was the better school and why the charter school couldn’t move to another building.

Of the three schools that the panel voted to begin phasing out next year, Bronx Academy proved the most controversial. A large group of students, parents, and teachers attended the meeting tonight to defend the school against closure, citing its students’ improving credit accumulation and Regents passage rates.

In the last seven years, Bronx Academy has seen four principals come and go. It is currently on the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools. Yet in September, the school began the process of transforming itself. It was given a new principal, Gary Eisinger, and it formed a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a community-based organization that offers students counseling and support. Bronx Academy also switched from semesters to trimesters, allowing students to 18 credits a year instead of 14.

“I’ve worked in transfer schools, and I’ve never seen a principal work this hard,” said Kevin Towns, an advocate counselor with Good Shepherd. “The data you’re [the DOE] using is from the old regime. These people have been here eight months — let’s be real.”

But Department of Education officials said that they had seen enough of the school’s progress to decide that it wasn’t enough to justify keeping Bronx Academy open.

“The principal has come into a tough set of circumstances, and you do see the impact of his leadership in that school,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “Even if there has been improvement, it’s well below what we expect to see. And well below what we see across transfer schools citywide.”

Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said that only two-thirds of Bronx Academy students were showing up to school every day and only a quarter are passing their Regents exams. Many students are still earning too few credits to graduate on time, he said.

“What I’m seeing is the culture in that school has changed and that is powerful and that is what has generated the positive energy, but the academic expectations have not changed,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Anita Batisti, who directs Fordham University’s school support organization, which oversees Bronx Academy, said she couldn’t understand why the city would want to close an improving school.

“I ask you, please give us more time,” she said.

Monica Major, the panel member appointed by the Bronx borough president, said the DOE was rushing to close a school that was just beginning to show signs of improvement. Although Major proposed that the panel table its plans to vote on the school’s closure, her motion was voted down. The panel also voted to open a new transfer school called Bronx Arena that will replace Bronx Academy.

“Marc, I’m really hoping Arena only gets eight months, the same amount of time you gave this school,” Major said to Deputy Chancellor Sternberg.

Asked after the meeting whether eight months would be enough time to judge one of the city’s 11 transformation schools — many of which have been given new principals and support after years of little progress — Walcott sidestepped the question.

“We can’t tolerate slow, incremental change,” he said.

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