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Fearing turnaround, Queens schools seek borough prez's help

Dozens of teachers, parents, students, and at least one principal from the eight Queens schools facing “turnaround” say they have brought their concerns to district superintendents and other Department of Education officials this month to no effect.

On Monday evening, they found a more sympathetic audience: Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who vowed to push back against the city’s plans to close the schools.

Marshall’s uncharacteristically aggressive promise came at a meeting at Queens Borough Hall that her office organized about the city’s plan to “turn around” 33 struggling schools. Under the plan, which Mayor Bloomberg announced last month as a way to secure federal funding, the schools would close and reopen this summer with new names and at least half their staffs replaced.

Marshall sat before a standing-room-only crowd with Dmytro Fedkowskyj, her appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, the citywide school board that decides the fate of schools proposed for closure. As a panel member, Fedkowskyj has emerged as a frequent critic of the mayor’s school policies, signaling Marshall’s endorsement, but she has typically been soft-spoken on education issues.

That was not the case on Monday. Marshall often clapped and cheered as she listened to dozens of teachers and families defend their schools. Occasionally she even interjected to describe how her respect for teachers developed over years of working as an early childhood educator.

The speakers hailed from Newtown High School, Queens Vocational High School, Grover Cleveland High School, Richmond Hill High School, Flushing High School, John Adams High School, William Cullen Bryant High School, August Martin High School, and Long Island City High School. All of the schools had been undergoing less aggressive federal school reform models, known as “transformation” and “restart,” before Bloomberg made the change in order to circumvent a requirement for an agreement on new teacher evaluations.

The speakers included Michelle Robertson, an assistant principal at Grover Cleveland, and Frances DeSanctis, Richmond Hill’s principal. DeSanctis said graduation and attendance rates have risen at her school, which became a restart school in 2011, thanks in part to the creation of small learning academies and community internships for students.

“We serve students who are diverse in many ways, academic, socially, emotionally. And for those students who come with real social-emotional obstacles they have fostered relationships with teachers at our school,” she said. “For that to be pulled away would be a crime. For some of them this is the only consistency and positive relationships in their lives, and they deserve some stability.”

Many of the parents and students described the support and comfort they receive from teachers at the schools, suggesting that turnaround would destroy the community fabric there. Of the dozen educators who spoke, many said the schools should have been given the three years to improve under the restart and transformation models originally promised to them, and several others implored Marshall and Fedkowskyj to do something to reverse the plan.

“Newtown students represent many high-needs populations — special education, English language learners. Most of our students fall below the poverty line,” said Joe Doyle, a teacher from Newtown. “Please, Borough President Marshall, give us the support we need.”

After the meeting, Marshall told me she is still unsure how to appeal to the city or help the schools in her borough. Ideally she said, she would gather community leaders and have a sit-down conversation with Bloomberg about the turnaround proposals before the PEP votes on them April 26.

Fedkowskyj told me he is encouraging fellow panel members who were appointed by borough presidents to hold similar hearings. Fedkowskyj joined the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn borough representatives in voting “no” on almost all school closure and colocation decisions at last week’s panel meeting, where 23 schools were approved for closure or truncation. But the panel, whose majority is composed of Bloomberg’s appointees, has never rejected a city a proposal.

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