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When Turnaround Came To My School

A week ago, as I walked into Flushing High School to start my day, there was a strange energy in the air — a mixture of anxiety and strangely, a little optimism. In the mailroom there was a colorful bulletin board of pictures from a recent rally held by teachers and students on the sidewalk in front of our school. The images were uplifting: smiles and enthusiastic faces marching together for a common cause — to save our school from possible “turnaround,” a form of closure. The reason that morning stands out so vividly in my mind is that the public hearing about the city’s plan was to take place that evening.

The fact that this was real — and that this was really going to happen — set in when I passed the auditorium around 1 p.m. and saw the final adjustments being made to the tables, chairs, and microphones that would facilitate the contentious meeting. I was unexpectedly hit with feelings of sadness and resentment; the auditorium where I had participated in so many concerts, plays, poetry readings, and awards ceremonies was being “invaded” by bureaucrats who had never visited our school, or interacted with any of our students. I joked with my students that it felt like the penultimate scene in “E.T.” when scientists set up shop in Elliot’s house.

As I recount the details of that evening, there will be one recurring theme: I am so proud of my students!

An hour before the hearing began, about 15 students gathered at the end of a hallway to make posters supporting our school. The posters expressed many different ideas: “Save Our School,” for example, or “You Can’t Destroy our Dreams” and “137 Years Strong, We Belong!” The poster-making session was accompanied by lively discussion that included anger, optimism, pessimism, and cynicism. “How can they close our school?” one student asked. “Mr. Albertson, do you think there is any chance that they may vote to keep our school open?” In a nearby office, students helped each other draft and edit speeches that they would present at the hearing.

We walked to the auditorium as a group and immediately signed up to speak. Some of the students meandered through the growing crowd and were collecting signatures on a poster reading: “Save our School!” Within minutes there was no free space for any additional names.

As I looked around the room, I saw the familiar faces of colleagues, students, and parents — but their countenances showed sadness and uncertainty. Several of my band students asked, “Can we play the drums?” What a great idea! We carried about 10 bucket drums and a container of sticks from the music room and gathered players across two rows of seats. Along with several teachers we performed an energetic beat that immediately changed the mood in the room. Sensing this new energy amidst broad smiles and camera flashes, we changed our beat to three big unison hits: “Save our school! Save our school!”

It was time to begin.

After a brief overview by a representative of the Department of Education, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner read a summary of the Flushing’s Environmental Impact Statement — a legal document outlining the process of closing a school and reopening a new one under the federal turnaround model. The crowd politely listened — for about one minute.

For me, this was the most infuriating point of the evening. Weiner was speaking about our school using such sterile language and the crowd was not having any of it. From the audience came boos and shouts: “Lies!” “The numbers are bogus!” I could have never anticipated what would happen next, and the emotional response that I would have.

Just as Weiner was stating, “Flushing High School has many positive attributes and has shown improvement, but the students are still not achieving” a picture of the students in my jazz band popped up as part of a slide show that was being displayed on the stage. I found myself choked up with emotion and began to tear up. I have worked with many of these students for four years; they have become like my own children. As a trained musician, I am quite familiar with proper audience etiquette, but found myself breaking all of the societal niceties that I usually abide by: I stood up pointing at the screen, and leaning over the chair in front of me was screaming at the panel, “Look at them! Look at my students! They are not failing!”

The following day one of my students observed, “Mr. Albertson, you were crazy last night.”

With a horse voice I responded, “Don’t mess with my students.”

The public comment period was the highlight of the evening. Approximately 60 students, parents, educators, and community members spoke up passionately defending the institution that has meant so much to us all.

The students were the stars that night. To be 15 or 16 years old and to stand up in front of a large audience addressing city officials in suits is nothing short of amazing. They spoke with so much passion and from so many different personal experiences. One young man stood up and stated, “I will not speak to you in English, but rather in Spanish.” This was a powerful statement, and one that captured the essence of Flushing High School: We are a school composed of diverse learners from many different backgrounds. And yet the department has not reached out to non-English-speaking families: The original letter from Chancellor Dennis Walcott stating that our school was slated for turnaround, for example, was never sent home in any language besides English — even though we have many parents who only speak Spanish, Chinese, Korean or Arabic.

As the evening progressed, an interesting theme developed: Students were defending their teachers, and teachers were defending their students. One young lady argued, “It is unfair to blame our teachers. I am in classes with students who don’t pay attention, put their heads on their desks, and make noises, while many of us are trying to learn.” And while many might assume that teachers would be defending their jobs, most spoke up for their students: “These students come to this country speaking no English and graduate four years later.” “We have great students!”

We showed the best of what Flushing High School has to offer and put up a valiant fight. There was a strong sense of community in the room during a year where it has felt as though we are constantly being torn apart.

Perhaps the best defense of our school — and of public education in general — came from a 10th-grade student who had immigrated from Ghana. This young lady was in my drumming class last year and I asked her ahead of time, “Are you planning to speak tonight?” She was hesitant: “I don’t know if I can do it — I would be so nervous.” Needless to say I was thrilled when I saw her approach the microphone. She stood with a confident posture looking directly at the panel and immediately began to cry. Through uncontrollable tears she forcefully and passionately defended the school, finishing with, “And every time there is something that I don’t think I’ll be able to do, my teachers always say, ‘Yes you can!’ ‘Yes you can!’ ‘Yes you can!’”

As several of my colleagues and I stood to applaud her, I saw that we all had tears in our eyes. We became teachers to work with students, not for the money, the recognition, or the two-month summer vacations. Our tears were a result of pride, empathy, and the realization that our wonderful school, Flushing High School — the oldest public high school in New York City and the first to have an integrated student body — will most likely not be here next year, at least not in its current form.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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