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From Queens, strategies to halt redoubled "turnaround" plans

Parents at Richmond Hill High School hadn’t heard that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given a chance to reverse his bid to overhaul their school yesterday when they gathered to strategize against his plan.

But it wouldn’t have made a difference if they had: Bloomberg rejected the opportunity, created by a resolution in the city’s teacher evaluation talks with the UFT, and vowed to proceed with plans to “turn around” 33 struggling schools, including Richmond Hill, anyway.

When I told some of them the news that Bloomberg had reaffirmed his intentions to move forward with the turnaround, they said the news didn’t change their agenda: to figure out how to halt the turnaround, which would cause the school to close and reopen with a new name and many new teachers. They pressed Principal Frances DeSanctis and City Councilman Ruben Wills, who both attended the parent association meeting, for suggestions about how to fight back against the city’s plan.

Carol Bouchard, the parent coordinator, said she left an “early engagement” meeting with Department of Education officials under the impression that the school could still go back to the restart model, which involved sharing the school management duties, and SIG funding, with and Educational Partnership Organization. She said Bloomberg’s recommitment did not cause her to abandon hope.

“I feel like it’s still hanging,” she said.

Bloomberg announced during his State of the City Address last month that he intended to use the controversial “turnaround” federal school reform model at 33 Persistently Low-Achieving schools.

In the past month, school communities across the city have vocally protested the plans, which many say would be detrimental to the learning environments their schools are struggling to maintain and derail the reform efforts already underway.

But Richmond Hill had been silent, until this week, when DeSanctis and a small handful of parents told Queens Borough President Helen Marshall that they wanted help reversing the plan. Today Marshall sent a letter to the State Education Department’s Commissioner, John King, urging him to give the schools more time to improve before approving the city’s plan to close them under turnaround.

Belizanda Gourgue, a parent who helped organize the meeting, asked the small but determined group of about 20 parents seated around the basement cafeteria to brainstorm ways to challenge the plan. But she and others noted that the finer details of the turnaround plan are still unclear and confusing.

“This is very important, and we wanted to inform the parents a little bit more to help them understand what this is,” she said. “I myself didn’t know how to explain it all.”

Several said they had relatively little experience with activism and were not sure how to proceed. Wills said he would take their concerns to the City Council, and he urged them to call 311 and rally together as many students and parents as possible to talk to schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Several parents at the meeting said their children reported being interviewed recently by officials who said they are monitoring the school’s progress under restart. One mother who asked not to be identified because of a conflict she and her daughter experienced with an elementary school teacher that prompted her to homeschool until last year, said she lauded the school’s friendly teachers and “small learning communities,” which structure 75-minute-long classes around students’ interests, such as the visual arts.

“I was ready to send my daughter hours away when I heard the reputation of the school,” she said, referring to the school’s recent history of poor graduation rates and test score results. “But when I came here I found good people. The teachers here are all cooperating with each other.”

“The thought of getting back into the regular school system just made me cringe,” the mother, whose daughter entered ninth grade last fall, added, “but I found despite this old building, a lot of innovation is going on here.”

Gourgue said that because she wears a veil for religious reasons, she initially expected to face prejudice in the public school. But the staff made her and her 10th-grade daughter feel comfortable.

“This is a wonderful school with a wonderful atmosphere. They’ve made me feel like family—that’s something I don’t want to lose,” she said. “My daughter dissected a pig in science class the other day, and she came home and said, ‘I want to be a surgeon.’ This shows that the small learning communities they’re offering right now is helpful. I’m afraid that they’re going to lose that.”

As the meeting wrapped, Wills presented DeSanctis with a check for the discretionary funding allocated to the school.

“Hopefully we’ll be presenting this to a school with the same name next year,” he told her.

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