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City officials are short on answers at Brooklyn turnaround forum

Teachers and students from Brooklyn schools proposed for turnaround brought protest signs and pointed questions to a Monday night meeting with city officials — and left with few concrete answers.

As representatives of most Brooklyn schools proposed for turnaround pled their cases in front of city officials tasked with closing an extra 33 schools this year, members of the overflow audience interrupted with shout-outs, standing ovations, and, at one point, sustained chanting of “Free the 33!”

School communities have argued against the turnaround plans in tandem before, at an event in Queens and a meeting of the citywide high schools parent group. But this is the first time schools have been invited to testify in front of city officials masterminding the changes. Officials also heard for the first time from schools that have been almost completely silent about the reform plans.

Elaine Gorman, the Department of Education official overseeing turnaround, opened the meeting, organized by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, with an overview of the proposals, which would call for each school to replace at least half its staff and to be closed and re-opened with a new name. Then representatives from the 11 Brooklyn turnaround schools were invited to give testimonies about their schools.

John Dewey High School teachers, parents, and students reprised their frequent protests by turning out in full-force; at least 100 of them sat in the audience sporting their cheerleading outfits or T-shirts in the school’s signature red, and lept into standing ovations each time a Dewey student or teacher spoke. And a half-dozen William Maxwell High School teachers, unhappy that their A grade on the city’s annual progress report would not be enough to protect their school from closure, waved poster-sized versions of the report card and the letter A when it was their turn to speak.

They were joined by a slightly more subdued group of parents and teachers from Sheepshead Bay High School, the Cobble Hill School for American Studies, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, and a lone middle school student from the School for Global Studies, who spoke about the school’s co-location with a charter school.

“We’ve got to have some discrimination here, because we’re closing down 33 schools because we don’t like something that happened between our union rep and the mayor,” said Bruce Sherman, a guidance counselor at Sheesphead Bay, referring to the deadlocked city-union negotiations over teacher evaluations that the city has blamed for the turnaround plan. “The staff is not the problem.”

Sheesphead Bay High School was named a federal “restart” school in 2011, meaning it would receive millions of school improvement dollars and be run by an Educational Partnership Organization. But a legal dispute with the city and the nonprofit EPOs stalled reforms at Sheesphead and other restart schools. In December, Principal Reesa Levy unexpectedly announced her retirement—a move that worried staff and students who knew the leadership change would hold up school improvements even more.  Sherman said the new interim principal, John O’Mahoney, “has his act together,” and has kept teacher morale from dropping further since he arrived at the school earlier this year.

“We believe that restart should still go into effect,” said Thaddeus Russell Jr. a father of three Sheepshead alumni and one current student. “The reason I disagree with turnaround is because the model says only 50 percent of the staff can be re-hired. I don’t believe that’s to the benefit of any students. How can the current freshmen, sophomores, juniors, how can we continue with the academies that have been instituted, if half the staff is not there next year?”

Teachers from the Cobble Hill School for American Studies all noted that the school had made strides in recent years, earning consistent B grades on its annual report card.

“Can you imagine a student a senior with three straight Bs coming back to school for their senior year and being told its not good enough? That’s unthinkable,” said Jeff Slater, the teachers union representative

Patricia Gentile, a teacher from Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, which also earned a B on its most recent progress report, told Gorman that teachers have shown their dedication to the school by logging 12- to 14-hour workdays.

“When we found out we’d be a “transformation” model school the staff said, ‘What can we do?’ They didn’t put their hands together,” she said. “We’ve been a solid, consistent school that everybody is proud of.”

Gorman said she could sympathize with the groups’ frustrations, referring to a job she once had inside a closing school. But she responded to most of their questions with a promise to follow-up over email.

As the three hour-long meeting wound down, one Dewey student asked Gorman a rare big-picture question, “Why do you think [turnaround] is the most effective way?”

“I’ve tried to answer that question most of the night,” Gorman responded. “We want to take the components of the schools that are working best; we want to reassess what is working and why; we want to take a look at what is the best match. We’re hoping that we can leverage the best of what’s going on with the most qualified teachers to make the improvements that have started to happen even quicker.”

“You didn’t really answer the question,” a girl in the audience whispered as Gorman turned to the next speaker in the line of two-dozen people waiting to ask questions.

Will parents be placed on any turnaround school personnel committees? What will happen to the “magnet” grants that some schools are already receiving? Can a new school choose not to keep on its EPO? How will students be able to ask former teachers for college and job references? Several teachers from different schools also noted that parents and teachers had been given conflicting information about their public hearing date—and asked how the problem could be fixed.

Gorman said she would have to consult with other officials and respond to these questions over email—but she did not immediately dismiss them.

“These are good questions…they are worth our exploring,” Gorman said to one parent. To another Dewey student, who suggested the turnaround would make it harder to graduate on time, she said, “It isn’t the intention to make it harder for you, but I know it feels that way.”