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Students and staff say, again, that Lehman is on the upswing

For the third time in a year, students and teachers at Herbert H. Lehman High School lined up Monday night to tell city officials why the school should remain open.

They were there a year ago, when the city first shortlisted the school for possible closure. And they were back there this spring for a spate of meetings and protests over the city’s plan to close and reopen the school according to a federally prescribed overhaul process — a process Lehman only narrowly escaped.

Yesterday evening, Department of Education officials returned to Lehman to warn that closure is on the horizon again.

At an emotional “early engagement” meeting—a meeting between officials, school staff, community members that is the first step in the closure process—current and former teachers and students defended the large, East Bronx school, arguing that the Department of Education’s reform policies are to blame for Lehman’s decline. Department officials have held early engagement meetings at Lehman twice before, but the school ultimately remained open.

In a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, principal Rose Lobianco said the school is already on the slow and steady path to improvement, thanks to the creation of a small learning academy structure that splits students into several “academies,” with their own assistant principal leaders, based on academic interest.

“What we’re trying to accomplish at Lehman High School is almost like what the city is doing out there, but in one place,” she said, referring to the department policy of closing large, struggling schools and replacing them with several small schools. “Personalizing it through the small school structure is one way of addressing some of the concerns.”

“So, we’ve seen growth,” she added. “Even though it’s small change, small change can lead to great progress. This can help us build capacity, and I believe in that capacity.”

For years, Lehman has been posting dismal numbers for its graduation rate, attendance, and other the metrics that make up the department’s annual school progress reports—numbers that belie the school’s former reputation as a sought after option for students. Earlier this year, department officials sited those statistics when they argued that the school needed a dramatic intervention like closure.

But Lobianco said Lehman has already experienced the systemic shift it needs: enrollment has dropped from close to 3,500 to about 2,950, she said, and “I do believe we can do it with 3,000 students. That enrollment drop is an intervention.”

Lobianco is in her second year as principal of Lehman, a position she inherited when its former principal, Janet Saraceno, left the school, following a department investigation that found students’ grades were improperly altered while she was principal. Saraceno,received a $25,000 bonus to take the job in 2008.

Elaine Gorman, a top official in the department’s portfolio division, led the meeting. She listened on as teachers, students and parents passed a microphone around the Lehman auditorium for nearly two hours, sharing stories about the school’s strengths.

The handful of juniors and seniors who spoke praised the work ethic of their teachers and a new peer-to-peer mentoring program.

“Peer Group Connection is a great program, where the seniors help out the freshmen,” said Samantha Calero, a senior.  Now, “I see the freshmen in the hallways and they give me high fives and they ask me questions. That’s what we really need to see changes in the school.”

Lindita Nuculli said her teachers encouraged her to stay after school make up credits and take college-level courses, even after she enrolled at Lehman behind schedule.

“Freshman year, I came in about four months late into the school year, because I had surgery, and I was told that I was going to have to repeat a year,” she said. “I’m a senior now, in my fourth year, 42 credits, and graduating on time, because my teachers encouraged me. And I’m going to go to college with six college credits already.”

And at Lehman, “You email the principal at twelve o’clock at night, and she literally emails you back eight minutes later” Nuculli added, to cheers from the audience. “It feels really good to walk around when the principal knows your name.”

One staffer, dressed head-to-toe as the Lehman mascot, a lion, stood at the back with a sign that read “Lehman High School has high standards, excelling in career and college readiness,” in a nod toward one bright spot on Lehman’s most recent progress report: its B grade for college readiness.

Few speakers referred to the department’s aborted plans to put Lehman through a rigorous federal school reform routine called “turnaround” earlier this year. In the name of turnaround, school leaders temporarily renamed the school and required all teachers to reapply for their jobs, with the intention of weeding out the weakest. But that plan fell-through in the summer when the city lost a lawsuit with the teachers and principals unions over it. Some schools, including John Dewey High School and the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, struggled to overcome the confusion and tension that that ensued.

But several speakers said parent involvement was a missing ingredient in Lehman’s efforts to improve so far.

“We should have all parents available in these meetings, why is it that when I’m responsible for about 60 students, only about 20 parents are here?” said Al Bruno, who has taught English for the past five years at Lehman. “We need more parent involvement.”

But the real problem the school will have to address down the line, Bruno said in an interview, is the large numbers of students at Lehman who are behind grade level and behind on the credits they need to graduate.

The department “sees Fs, they see that we are failing, but as I stated, a good percentage of our students are long-term absences,” he said. “That really works against us.”