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City reverses plans to close Wadleigh middle school, KAPPA VII

Two schools that had faced closure votes this week are being taken off the chopping block.

The Department of Education said today it would no longer seek to close the middle grades of Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing and Visual Arts or the KAPPA VII middle school in Brooklyn. Teachers reported getting the news at the end of the day today, one day before the citywide school board was set to vote on the closure proposals.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department had made the decision after listening to community input at public meetings and behind the scenes.

“While these two schools continue to struggle, what we learned is that they are also poised to quickly improve,” he said in a statement.

But supporters of the schools, particularly Wadleigh, said the city’s statement was a smokescreen and said they would still travel to Thursday’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting in Brooklyn to protest closure votes for 23 other schools.

The real reason for the unusual reversal, they said, was that influential politicians in Harlem had sprung to Wadleigh’s aid — and threatened the Bloomberg administration in the process.

By keeping Wadleigh open, “they’re trying to divert attention from the issue that legislators are finally stepping forward against mayoral control,” said Noah Gotbaum, a member of the district’s elected parent council who had been involved in efforts to save the school.

Angered by Wadleigh’s position on the chopping block, Assemblyman Keith Wright had crafted legislation to roll back mayoral control and give some authority to other entities, such as the State Education Department and the City Council.

Wright had previously been undecided on mayoral control of the city schools. But he joined a growing number of New Yorkers who are dissatisfied with the governance structure after nearly a decade under Mayor Bloomberg. A poll released today found that just 13 percent of city voters believe the mayor should retain sole control of the schools after Bloomberg leaves office in 2013, a number that has been more than halved in the last five years.

Today, Wright said that he was pleased by the news that Wadleigh would be saved but would still circulate his bill, a first step toward formally introducing it.

“I think it’s still appropriate,” he said. “It was clear on its face the Bloomberg administration was trying to clear the space for some co-location of a charter school, which is absolutely ridiculous. I just thought it was wrong.”

The charter school, Harlem Success Academy, was approved last year to move into the building in September and will do so as planned, according to department officials.

That issue has Wadleigh’s advocates unwilling to celebrate victory. A woman who answered the phone at the school this afternoon said that department officials had informed students and teachers in two separate meetings this afternoon about the change. She said teachers and staff were relieved by the news but wanted to know whether the middle school, which enrolled just 86 students last year, would be able to expand.

“Before we jump up and down we need to know the answers,” said the woman, who said she did not want her name published because she was afraid of reprisal.

“Of course we’re happy that we’re not being closed but it’s still a perplexing feeling,” said Anthony Klug, Wadleigh’s union chapter leader. “We still strongly believe that no school should be in this predicament.”

And Paul McIntosh, the school’s librarian who had recruited fiery scholar Cornel West to Wadleigh’s defense, said he thought the building would have space for a third school only if Wadleigh’s substantial arts spaces are reduced. (A second school in the building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, made the department’s closure shortlist but was ultimately not selected to close.)

“While one can applaud what happened today, it still doesn’t rest well with me as far as what I have observed,” McIntosh said.

One of the many elected officials who had sprung to Wadleigh’s defense, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens heard the news by phone directly from Walcott this afternoon and asked whether HSA would still move into the building, according to a spokeswoman, Lynnette Veslaco.

“The fight’s not over, but it’s a good day today,” Velsaco said. “The council member still has an issue with the co-location.”

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who had appeared at a raucous public hearing about Wadleigh’s closure last month, said he hoped the news would augur additional resources for the school.

“These turnabouts are all too rare, and the victory is a credit to this vibrant school community that never gave up,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working further with parents and teachers to keep Wadleigh on the right track, and to ensur[ing] today’s announcement is followed by the concrete support Wadleigh needs to succeed.”

Hazel Dukes, head of New York City’s chapter of the NAACP, said she was impressed by tightly organized defense of Wadleigh that she experienced at the closure hearing. That organization must have frightened city officials, she speculated.

“They knew that hell was going to break lose” if Wadleigh were closed, she said.

It’s a sentiment that Wright seconded. “Wadleigh was the line in the sand,” he said. “They would have had to come through the community before we’d let them close it down.”

City officials denied the charge that Wadleigh’s last-minute save was politically motivated.

“We make decisions based on the outcomes we believe we can achieve for students, and over the course of our engagement process we came to believe that Wadleigh’s Middle School has a good chance of turning around under new leadership,” said Frank Thomas, a department spokesman.

The current principal, Herma Hall, announced last week that this Friday would be her last day at the school, and next week, Tyee Chin, who currently works at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, will take over.

A scant number of schools have been removed from the closure list at the eleventh hour before, often after receiving a groundswell of support. Last year, the city withdrew its proposal to close Brooklyn’s P.S. 114 after community leaders and elected officials, including de Blasio, argued that the school had been undermined by an incompetent principal. In 2010, the department decided to phase out only portions of Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School after originally suggesting that the entire school should be closed. (Ultimately, no school closed that year because a lawsuit voided the closure votes conducted in February.)

But many schools that are now just a day from a closure vote have had vigorous defenses mounted on their behalf, to no avail. And the second school removed from the closure list today, KAPPA VII, hadn’t mounted a perceptible defense at all.

The city said the principal who took over at KAPPA VII this year had made positive changes that appeared likely to continue.

Still, even the president of KAPPA VII’s local parent council, Khem Irby, was surprised when she learned the school would remain open. She said she thought a different school in the district that had demonstrated community support, Satellite III, was a more likely candidate for resurrection.

“We were expecting it to be Satellite III, not KAPPA VII, if anything. definitely,” she said. “They’re not doing what we asked. We just had a long meeting with DOE last night and we asked for Satellite III.”

Satellite III is one of 23 schools that face closure votes Thursday night by the Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal. Twenty of them would be phased out and three are middle schools that would be closed.