Standing beside a dozen elected officials this morning, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall recalled the anxiety in the voices of the many Queens students, teachers and school leaders who have implored her to help them fight city plans to close their schools this year.
“When they came to us, I heard children cry, ‘What am I going to do?'” Marshall said at a press conference denouncing the city’s plans to “turn around” 33 schools, including eight Queens schools. “They love their schools, they want to stay in their schools. They love learning in their schools. I stand hand in hand here with the children. They do not want this.”
Marshall convened the press conference just hours before Queens’ first public hearing about turnaround, the controversial process the city has proposed for 33 struggling schools. But the event was far from Marshall’s first public statement on the plans, which would require the schools to close and reopen with a new name and many new teachers.
She also held a hearing at Queens Borough Hall about the proposals in February, where she unveiled an uncharacteristically aggressive stance against the Department of Education. The shift makes sense: For the previous decade, Queens has seen relatively few of its schools shuttered for poor performance, and of the 23 schools whose closures or truncations were approved in February, only one was in the borough. But the borough is home to a full quarter of the schools proposed for turnaround.
Marshall’s appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, has submitted a resolution to the panel opposing all 33 turnaround proposals, and Marshall was joined today by other Queens officials, including Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chair of the assembly’s education committee.
Some speakers still could not distinguish turnaround from the city’s typical school phase-out process, which involve eliminating a grade each year until a school has disappeared and new ones have sprouted up in its place. Under the turnaround plans, the schools would remain roughly the same size as they are now.
Some of the speakers referenced disruptions experienced by students at Jamaica High School and other large high schools the city has phased out in Queens. Others who had graduated from Grover Cleveland High School and William Cullen Bryant High School extolled the virtues of the large high school, which they said the turnaround plans would undermine.
The turnaround schools “offer a wide variety of services for kids who may not know what they want to do at 14 to go to a small specialized school” said Nolan, who helped organize the press conference. “Certainly they need resources, they need some attention. I know at [Grover Cleveland High School] they’re looking at reorganizing the school into small learning communities, and that’s all great. We want to see that, but we don’t want to see the names closed, the schools closed. We don’t want to see kids … have their 17 year old lives be disrupted.”
Nolan said Queens officials are planning to meet with city and state officials about the turnaround plans next week. The plans are attracting protest from Queens officials who are not typically involved in education issues: City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer is helping spearhead a rally at Bryant on Tuesday before that school’s closure hearing, for example.
Tonight, Nolan will join protesters at Grover Cleveland, her alma mater, where she will share a letter she is submitting to State Education Commissioner John King asking him to reject the city’s turnaround proposals.
The city filed the proposals with the state last week. Without King’s approval, the city may still close the 33 schools, but would not be able to receive federal School Improvement Grants for the effort.