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Scenes from three schools as turnaround hearings get started

Three schools facing the same fate — a federally prescribed school reform strategy known as “turnaround” — registered their opposition in very different ways at public hearings Wednesday evening.

The hearings are a required part of the city’s school closure process. In order to execute turnaround at 33 schools, qualifying them for a total of about $60 million in funding, the city must close and reopen the schools after changing their names and many of their teachers. Tuesday’s hearings were the first in a series that extends to April 19, a week before the Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the turnaround plans.

At Sheepshead Bay High School, students and staff argued that the school is doing well despite a challenging student population. At Automotive High School, teachers acknowledged that the school desperately needs help — but they said past failures gave them little confidence the city could deliver it. And the community struck an entirely different tone at Harlem Renaissance High School, which would only be lightly touched by turnaround’s most stringent requirements.

Harlem Renaissance High School

Opposition to turnaround was all in a name for students, parents, and teachers at Harlem Renaissance, a transfer high school that accepts students who have been unsuccessful at other schools.

A large portion of the school’s 200 students turned out for the hearing, and many of the people who testified said their top priority was maintaining the school’s name. A representative of the local community district testified that “Harlem” is an essential part of the name to preserve as the neighborhood continues to gentrify and change in character. Ajee Joyner, a senior, focused on the word “renaissance” and explained that she had learned it meant “rebirth” — a poignant definition for students who failed at or even dropped out of other schools.

“From the moment I walked through the doors, the theme of experiencing your own personal renaissance was constantly reinforced,” said Joyner. “Every staff member reminds us on a regular basis that we can become whatever we want if we allow ourselves to be reborn in our learning and our educational paths.”

Few schools’ turnaround protests appear to focus on the renaming requirement. But at Harlem Renaissance, that could be the biggest disruption because it won’t have to replace any teachers: 10 of the 18 teachers joined the staff in the last two years, so they would be counted as new under the federal rules about teacher replacement.

Principal Nadav Zeimer, who arrived in 2010, told GothamSchools that he is optimistic about turnaround and would use the federal funds to bolster a program that infuses video production into academic classes. But he said he hoped the school’s name would not have to change to get those resources.

Harlem Renaissance is one of several transfer schools to land in the turnaround queue after posting low graduation rates. The state has asked the federal government to introduce different performance metrics for transfer schools, whose students enter already off-track to graduate, but any change would come after turnaround is already underway.

Automotive High School

Few students turned out for the hearing about the city’s plan to replace Brooklyn’s Automotive High School. Instead, alumni outnumbered both students and teachers, crediting their careers as sanitation workers, auto mechanics, and members of the military to the technical training they received at Automotive.

Deputy Chancellor David Wiener said the city decided to close the school because it seems to be declining, rather than improving. He pointed to the the school’s 1 percent college or career readiness rate in 2011 and a student survey in which four of 10 students said that safety was a concern.

Last year, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch visited the school and criticized it publicly as a “warehouse” for students from other closed schools.

Current teachers did not try to praise the school. Instead, they said they opposed the turnaround plan because the department has not been successful in its previous improvement efforts to improve the school.

Tiffany Judkins, a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, became a “master teacher” at Automotive in 2010 when the school was among 11 to undergo “transformation” using federal School Improvement Grants. With interim acting principal Caterina Lafergola sitting two seats away on stage, Judkins testified that poor leadership had created a dysfunctional culture. The school, Judkins said in her testimony, has been plagued by ”rampant miscommunication, a lack of organization, and a lack of any kind of clarity of purpose in both the long and short term.”

Lafergola, who did not speak during the hearing, was hired in August just weeks after the nonprofit group New Visions was chosen to work with Automotive when the school entered the “restart” reform model last fall. She is the third principal since 2009 and will stay on next year under the city’s plan.

“This place has had no stability and we’ve had constant changes in leadership,” said Will Stasiuk, a 17-year teacher at the school. “We’ve been fed so many different visions and so many different directions that nothing has been tried out a long period of time.”

Sheepshead Bay High School

Teachers and students at Sheepshead Bay also lamented that the school had not had a chance to show improvement since the fall, when is partnered with Diplomas Now under the “restart” model, before being proposed for turnaround.

But more than that, they emphasized the school’s strengths: dedicated teachers, diverse students who come from all corners of the globe, and celebrated mock trial and track and field teams. The city should improve the school, not close it, they argued.

“The teachers go above and beyond. They’re tutoring us during their lunches and breaks,” testified Yuri Ostrozhynskyy, a senior who helped create a mock-trial video opposing the turnaround plan. “The teachers push us because they have a personal relationship with us, they know what to expect of us.”

“Our parent coordinator accepts children, families almost every day who are not in any school system in this country, and we gladly show the families around this wonderful school,” said Thaddeus Russell, a School Leadership Team member and the father of three graduates and a current student.

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg acknowledged that the school has had “some success” graduating English Language Learners in four years, and can count its slowly climbing graduation rate among its strengths.

But he said the school otherwise was not improving quickly enough. “When we find a school where improvement is not happening at the pace that we want it and there are populations of students who are not being served, we are compelled on behalf of current students and future students to make a decision,” Sternberg told the audience of more than 100 Sheepshead Bay supporters.

Hours earlier the supporters had marched around the school’s perimeter waving banners; playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on drums and brass instruments; and sporting shirts that read, “Sorry, We’re Closed” — with the word “sorry” crossed-out and the word “closed” replaced with the word “open.”

Robin Kovat, a teacher who has been at the school for 15 years, said turnaround’s requirement that many teachers be replaced would strike at the

“Getting rid of the teachers does nothing to improve the schools. As a matter of fact, getting rid of the teachers just will make matters worse,” Kovat said. “I know we teach students successfully.”

She added, “A student comes into ninth grade knowing three words of English: ‘Yes, no, okay.’ She graduates in four years with honors, is now on a mock trial scholarship at St. John’s. Another student, special-ed, becomes an honors student, a leader. Statistics do not contain the lives of our students.”