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Impassioned students paint dismal picture at Gompers hearing

The regular English classes that Carla LaChapelle teaches all have at least 30 students this year.

Last year, Miguel Estrella said he studied for the United States History Regents exam using a textbook that stopped at the Cold War.

LaChapelle and Estrella were among nearly 100 students, alumni, teachers, and activists at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School Thursday evening to challenge the city’s plan to close the school. They said inadequate resources and a flood of high-needs students led to a failing grade on the progress report that the city uses to assess schools.

Dozens of student speakers organized by two groups, Sistas and Brothas United and the Urban Youth Collaborative, steered the rowdy, three-and-a-half hour long hearing at the South Bronx campus. Many speakers refused to follow protocol the Department of Education has set for the closure hearings that would cut public comments off at two minutes each.

Along with a smaller handful of alumni and teachers, they painted a picture of Gompers as a warehouse for special education and high-needs students that has long suffered from inadequate funding.

Nearly 30 percent of Gompers students receive special education services, compared to about 17 percent of students citywide. And 84 percent of Gompers students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Gompers was labeled “persistently low-achieving” by the state last year, when it graduated just 41 percent of its students on time. City officials said the lagging graduation rate, which places Gompers in the bottom 1 percent of city high schools, and other measures led to the closure decision.

Students and teachers did not dispute the low scores but argued that the city has allowed the school to languish without aid despite years of no progress. Last year, a student protest called on the city to assign Gompers additional federal aid after 33 other low-performing schools were awarded extra funds.

LaChapelle, who has been teaching English and self-contained special education classes at Gompers for her entire 11-year teaching career, said a class size “explosion” in recent years has made it difficult to give students individualized attention. She also said the school’s budget is so tight that she spends hundreds of dollars annual out of pocket to purchase classroom supplies, books, and computer software.

The closure news, she said, has only made her job of reaching the students tougher.

“A lot of students here have given up on the future,” LaChapelle said. “We’re trying our best to reenergize them.”

Estrella, the top student in this year’s senior class, said the closure proposal has cast a shadow over his successes at Gompers. With help from teachers at the school he applied to some of the nation’s top-tier private colleges, he said, to applause from the audience and city officials. But overall, he siad, “the DOE is still failing the students.”

“My chemistry class has more than 25 students,” Estrella told me. “More teachers for more students would have been better. Then they could have given me the extra one-on-one time I needed.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote Feb. 9 on Gompers’ closure along with closure or truncation plans at 24 other schools. The city plans to replace the school with a new transfer high school and a charter high school operated by the nonprofit New Visions.

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