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In a South Bronx district, parents want action on failing schools

Frustrated parents in one South Bronx district took to the streets Wednesday to raise awareness about the disproportionately high number of failing schools in the neighborhood.

Among their requests: for the city to turn toward District 9 more often when deciding which schools to close.

At P.S. 64, on 170th street, the parents protested during dismissal on a sidewalk just outside the courtyard where parents picked up their children. Next they marched up Webster Avenue to a building that houses two middle schools on the state’s latest list of lowest-performing schools.

The protest struck a nerve with several parents at the elementary school. They collided with the protesters on the sidewalk during dismissal, prompting some to share their own frustrations with P.S. 64. Valerie Fernandez said the homework that her fifth-grade son brought home hardly prepared him to think and write critically. One assignment he had earlier this year was to color in the countries of a world map, Fernandez said.

“I think they should give the principal a chance, but cut the staff,” said Fernandez. “The teachers, they just wait until they can go home.”

Another parent, Natasha Campbell, described the notebook that her daughter, who is in second-grade, brought home from school. Several assignments called for her to write her name down in the notebook over and over again, and now the pages are filled with her name, Campbell said.

P.S. 64 was one of a dozen schools in District 9 to land on the newest state list of schools in need of aggressive intervention this fall. Of the 123 city schools tagged as failing by the state’s new accountability system, more schools came from the district than any other in the city.

District 9 parent organizers recognized many familiar names: Under the outgoing No Child Left Behind accountability system, 26 of the district’s schools were labeled “in need of improvement.”

The new “focus schools” designation makes the schools eligible for federally funded overhauls, but to parents with students in the schools, it is a reminder of how little has changed in the seven years since the district was first categorized as “in need of improvement” under NCLB.

Only about a quarter of students in the district scored proficient on this year’s state reading tests, making it the second-lowest-performing district in the the city for a fifth consecutive year (nearby District 7 ranked last).

Yet a decade of aggressive efforts by the Bloomberg administration to replace struggling schools with new schools, many of them charter schools, have largely passed over District 9. The city has closed about 150 schools and opened nearly the same number of charter schools. District 9’s share: Just five closures and six charter schools.

“In this neighborhood, we get the leftovers, because of where we are,” said Yoshika Buchanan, who joined in Wednesday’s protest. “That’s not fair.”

For the last year, organizers have been working to get officials at both the city Department of Education and the State Education Department to commit to improving the district.

“The help we need is for the voices of parents, teachers, students to be taken seriously,” said Julia Allen, lead organizer for the district’s Parent Action Committee, which organized this week’s protest. “We are generating our own district improvement plan because the district has been unable to for all these years.”

Allen and the Department of Education agree that P.S. 64 is one of the schools that requires an aggressive intervention model. The city has listed P.S. 64 as one of its elementary schools that it could begin phasing out next year, after fewer than one in five of its students passed the state reading exam last year.

On Wednesday, parents and organizers from P.S. 64 suggested that closure wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Principal Tara O’Brien and District 9 Superintendent Dolores Esposito declined to comment at a meeting for parents about the school’s status on Monday evening. But teachers at the school said high turnover — at least 19 teachers have left since June — and a large number of high-needs students contributed to the school’s struggles. The school is rife with security issues and bullying, parents said. Teachers said there had been tension with the administration and several people spoke of one incident last year that elevated to a physical confrontation and ended with a teacher being removed from the school in handcuffs.

Campbell said she did not want to see the school closed because her daughter liked the school. She said she thought it could be improved if the parents were given more opportunities to participate in activities.

But Buchanan, who transferred her daughter to a higher-rated school in the district this year, disagreed.

“I believe that P.S. 64 needs a fresh start,” she said.