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Against mounting criticism, city targets 17 schools for closure

The Bloomberg administration is trying to make the most of its last chance to close schools.

The Department of Education today announced plans to shutter 17 low-performing schools in four boroughs and will propose more schools for closure on Tuesday. That means the Bloomberg administration is on track to begin phasing out more schools in its last year than in any previous year — though fewer than some speculated.

Last year, the department proposed closing 17 schools and shrinking eight more during its regular closure process. It also proposed closing and reopening 24 others as part of a controversial overhaul process that ended after an arbitrator ruled that the process violated the city’s contract with the teachers union.

The large number of closure proposals is not a surprise. The city wants to open 50 new schools this fall, and it needs to put them somewhere. Plus, some of the schools proposed for closure today have escaped the city’s ax in recent years, including six that the city wanted to close and reopen through the overhaul process, called “turnaround.” Another school, Choir Academy of Harlem, was one of nearly two dozen schools saved from closure by a union lawsuit two years ago.

The department is proposing to close two of the schools, Freedom Academy High School and M.S. 45 in Manhattan, outright at the end of the year. The rest of the schools would phase out over time.

The closure proposals come as criticism of the Bloomberg administration’s closure policies is coming from new directions. In addition to the advocates and school communities who have dutifully protested school closures each year, several mayoral candidates have said they would halt or dramatically scale back school closures. State Education Commissioner John King has joined the chorus, putting his concern about the impact of closures on high-need students on the record over the last year.

In July, the Urban Youth Collaborative and the Coalition for Educational Justice filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education charging that the city’s school closures have disproportionately affected students of color and students with disabilities.

Similar complaints filed by advocates in other cities have already triggered investigations, and Maria Fernandez, who coordinates the Urban Youth Collaborative, said the department is set to decide whether to investigate New York City by the end of the month.

“We’re optimistic. I think we have a strong case based on the numbers and data that we’ve seen over and over and over again around school closures in this city,” she said.

Department officials said they selected the schools for closure after weighing community input and assessing how likely the schools are to improve without being phased out or closed. The elementary and middle schools on the list have test scores that average less than half of the city average, while the high schools have an average graduation rate that is 83 percent of the city rate.

“These are difficult decisions that we’ve arrived at after thoroughly evaluating each school’s record — and now is the time to take action,” Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said in a statement.

But critics of the Bloomberg administration’s school closure policies said the schools are struggling because of the department’s inaction in the past and should not be penalized now.

“Under his direction the Department of Education does not feel like its job is to support schools,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today.

The 17 schools were culled from 62 whose academic performance landed them on the Department of Education’s closure shortlist. Two charter schools that the department considered closing will remain open, but with short-term charter renewals, the department announced today.

Last year, the department tried to shutter the two charter schools it shortlisted for closure. But both schools fought back in court, with one arguing successfully that the city’s process for closing schools was “riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency.”  The city opted to reverse course on the second charter school, Peninsula Preparatory Academy, and kept it open for at least one more year.

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the proposals at its March meeting, after a series of public hearings and, presumably, protests. The panel includes a parent whose child attends one of the schools, but its majority is controlled by the mayor and has never rejected a city proposal.

The schools proposed for closure today are listed below, by borough:

Manhattan High School of Graphic Communication Arts* M.S. 45/S.T.A.R.S. Prep Academy*** Choir Academy of Harlem Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School* The Bronx M.S. 203 Herbert H. Lehman High School*, ** P.S. 064 Pura Belpre Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications MS 142 John Philip Sousa*, ** Brooklyn: Freedom Academy High School**, *** P.S. 167 The Parkway J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin* J.H.S. 302 Rafael Cordero Sheepshead Bay High School* General D. Chappie James Middle School of Science** Queens P.S. 140 Edward K Ellington Law, Government and Community Service High School** *City proposed the school for turnaround in 2012 before the process was halted **City considered closing the school during the 2011-2012 school year but opted not to ***City is proposing to close the school at the end of the year, rather than phase it out