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Fight for life not over at three schools slated for closure this year

Three schools left for dead by the city and state’s closure policies have received some life support.

Two of the schools are charter schools that had been set to close at the end of the school year and the third is one of 23 schools operated by the Department of Education that the Panel for Educational policy voted last month to phase out.

Late Wednesday, a Queens County Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Department of Education’s plans to shutter Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School at the end of the school year. The city announced in December that it would not renew PPA’s charter, saying that it had not fulfilled its performance promises. Parents and school leaders spent months protesting the decision and even floated a radical plan to hand the school over to different leaders.

But after the city issued a final rejection last month, the school’s board hired lawyers and filed for a restraining order last week. When PPA and the city return to court March 29, the burden will be on Department of Education officials to present evidence defending their decision to shutter the school, which outperforms the other elementary schools in its neighborhood.

“We took it a step further,” said Lisa George, a board member and co-president of the school’s parent association. “We got attorneys and we took it to the state. We did not accept no for an answer.”

The PPA decision comes a day after another charter school, Believe Northside Charter High School in Williamsburg, learned that it  would remain open after its authorizers, the New York State Education Department, decided to extend its probation instead of following through with a closure plan. Northside belonged to the Believe Charter Network, which is under investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office for financial improprieties, and had ignored earlier warnings to sever ties with the network before finally complying with SED’s demands. Two other schools that had been part of the Believe network, Williamsburg Charter High School and Believe Southside, are still set to close.

And finally, parents from Satellite III, a middle school in Brooklyn, are making their case to State Education Commissioner John King as part of a legal strategy to force the Department of Education to reverse its closure decision.

The appeal to the state is an unusual tactic for challenging a closure and the parents are challenging the city’s support for the school rather than the procedures it followed in reaching the closure decision, making it unclear whether King could sway the closure plans. Past legal challenges have been lodged in the courts, not with SED; focused on whether closure rules and regulations were followed; and were handled by the United Federation of Teachers, which represented every school that was being closed.

UFT officials said Wednesday that they weren’t aware of Satellite III’s efforts and declined to comment on whether they planned to file a lawsuit against the city’s school closures, as it has done in each of the past two years. UFT President Michael Mulgrew has already vowed to pursue a legal action if the city goes through with plans close and reopen nearly three dozen schools under a slightly different process known as “turnaround.”

King has previously supported the city’s closure plans in the past but with reservations. Last summer, he awarded the city $5.1 million in federal School Improvement Grants for a dozen schools the city had decided to phase out, but in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott, he voiced concerns about the effect of the city’s closure policy on struggling students.

Previously, parents at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights filed an appeal to then-Commissioner David Steiner to prevent a plan to open a charter school in its building. Steiner upheld their appeal on the grounds that the city had not adequately detailed the impact of the co-location, forcing the department to rewrite the co-location plan for P.S. 9 and to write also prompted them to write new plans for dozens of its other charter school co-locations.

The parents of Satellite III are being supported by the same elected officials — State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, and City Councilman Al Vann — who delivered a letter of protest to the Department of Education at a public hearing about the closure. Both the letter and the petition charge that the school suffered because the department mishandled a leadership transition that took place in 2010.

The Satellite III petition to King claims that the DOE “derailed and sabotaged the school’s ability to serve its students well, when, in 2010, it thoughtlessly assigned an ill-equipped, unresponsive interim acting principal to lead the school into utter chaos and failure.”

The interim acting principal, Ronald Wells, disputed the petitions’s characterization of his role in the school’s struggles.

“A lot more goes into making a decision about phasing a school out than my eight-month tenure,” said Wells, who is currently principal at Paul Robeson High School, which is also in the process of phasing out.