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With "turnaround" now approved, a high school looks forward

Juniors at the High School for Graphic Communication Arts have a lot on their minds this month. They are putting the finishing touches on photography and graphic design projects, planning their study schedule for Regents exams, and signing up for the SAT.

The handful of students who met this morning to show off posters they designed for a local advocacy organization did not rank the school’s impending “turnaround” high on their list of worries.

As hundreds of students and teachers rallied around the city to protest the Department of Education plan — approved last week — to abruptly close, reopen and rename 24 schools this year, Graphics remained virtually silent. City officials floating closing Graphics last year but backtracked on the idea after large groups of students and graduates made their case for the school’s future at a tense meeting with DOE officials. But at its turnaround hearing this spring, just 32 people signed up to speak, compared with nearly 200 at some other schools.

Lantigua Sime, a longtime assistant principal at the Hell’s Kitchen Career and Technical Education school, said the students have already accepted the turnaround and moved on.

“You didn’t see any protests, you didn’t hear any noise here because we’re moving forward,” Sime said. “Anyone who is on the bus is on the bus. Anyone who isn’t is already waiting for their next one.”

Piotr Nieznalski, a 2002 graduate of Graphics who has been teaching at the school for four years — first as a teacher in the now-phasing out printing program, then as a graphic design teacher — said he is upbeat about the news.

“We’re doing good things, they can’t stop good things from happening. That’s my way of thinking,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll see, because we’re doing these excellent things, there’s no reason to get rid of those things.”

Nieznalski said union representatives came to the school Monday afternoon to talk teachers through the contract requirements and the rehiring process. In the coming weeks principals at each of the schools will have to post job descriptions for each of the teaching positions, whether or not they plan to replace the current teachers.

Nieznalski was gathered with a dozen of his students and several other Graphics teachers on the second floor, where education advocate Mary Conway-Spiegel celebrated three students who won a competition she held to design posters and cards for her nonprofit, Partnership for Student Advocacy.

Sime said the competition was evidence of the internship-heavy CTE school’s commitment to giving students job experience, and getting their work viewed professionally.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. This is how we’re going to do our work from this September on, partnering with our community-based organizations,” Sime said. “Everything we do in this building is going to be based on real-world experience.”

“I’m positive about this,” said Jamie Striharsky, a junior in the photography program who placed third in the design competition. “The school’s given me so many opportunities, it’s great. I was looking for photography programs because my dad’s a photographer.”

Other photography students nodded in agreement. They said they are concerned about their teachers’ futures but are more focused on the schoolwork separating them from summer vacation.

Kiani Martinez, another junior, was one of just a few dozen Graphics students who attended the joint public hearing city officials held last month to hear feedback on the turnaround plan.

“I think turnaround is the worst thing that could happen to the school,” Martinez said. “It’s good to be funding the school more again, but there’s a chance that all these teachers and school officials are not going to be here. But they’ve been helping us since we were freshman. No one else could have that type of caring about us if they just came into the school.”

After the photo-op, one teacher swapped business cards with some of the community members and officials in attendance, half-joking that she needed the professional contacts, because, “I’ll be out of a job next year—or I think I’ll be. I’m collecting all the cards I can.”

The teacher, who asked not to be identified, told me morale has been low among teachers since the turnaround was first announced in January, and the school’s new principal, Brendan Lyons, has not spent much time in the teacher’s classroom.

“I am reapplying for my job, but I probably won’t get it,” the teacher added. “I’ve worked under six principals [at Graphics, over the past two decades]. That’s a way to screw up the school, isn’t it?”

Lyons was not at the meeting today. But he was open with GothamSchools earlier this year about his plans to improve the F-rated school, with or without the turnaround program and the extra $1.5 million federal dollars it could bring in.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

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