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Closure would be fourth change in 3 years for Bread & Roses HS

As the city’s first night of school closing hearings began on Wednesday, supporters of Harlem’s Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School were back in a familiar situation. Just one year after trying to convince the Department of Education not to close and reopen the school with a new staff under the “turnaround” model, they were back in the same auditorium, making the same arguments.

Bread and Roses – along with other schools set for “turnaround” – eventually won in labor arbitration. But this year, the department proposed that Bread and Roses be phased out. Under the plan, the school would not enroll new students and would decrease in size as students graduate until it closes in 2016.

The school received an “F” on its last city report card, with only 41 percent of students graduating in four years compared to a citywide four-year graduation rate of more than 65 percent.

About 100 students, teachers and parents protested the phase-out plan in a two-hour hearing Wednesday night in the school auditorium, with many arguing that Bread and Roses was never given the opportunity to follow through or finish an improvement process before starting a new one.

The school has been put through the “transformation” model, which was supposed to change school leadership, bring in extra support services, and experiment with longer school days and new teacher training; the “restart” model, in which school operations are handed over to an independent education organization; and then the proposed “turnaround” model — all within the last three years.

More than half of the school’s current teachers were hired at the start of this school year. At the hearing, teachers said phasing out the school would cut short their efforts to improve the school. They said that the school needed more time to see the benefits of changes under Rodney Lofton, who became principal in March 2011.

Living environment teacher Pooja Bhaskar, who is in her first year at the school, said students have been earning more credits than in the past and did better on their January Regents exams than in previous years. The school has also begun using data to evaluate its own teaching practices and formed new partnerships with groups such as Theatreworks, Columbia University, and New York Road Runners, teachers said.

But Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson said that the school had to be fair to students who were not doing as well.

“Tonight, we will hear about some success stories happening here, and we will honor those,” she said. “But we must also consider the students the school is not serving well, and who will not experience the same successes. These students deserve better.”

Department officials announced on Wednesday that students in phase-out schools would be allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools, something that the city has made difficult in the past.

Bhaskar also said that Bread and Roses holds an important place in the community as one of few open enrollment schools amid more selective ones. “Many of the schools in the area won’t necessarily take our kids, but we take those kids, we educate those kids, we graduate those kids,” she said.

Ninth-grader Rokhaya Wade, who recently immigrated from Senegal, echoed the sentiment. During the public comment section, she read haltingly but clearly from a speech she had prepared. “I came here in September,” she said. “I did not even know any English, and they really helped me. The first school I went to in this city refused me because I didn’t speak English. Bread and Roses did not refuse me. Instead, they took me in.”

Three teachers who signed up to speak at the hearing used their time to read written statements from students in support of the school. Ninth-grade English teacher Laura Morel said students had been asked to craft arguments on the day’s “exit tickets,” written assignments that teachers regularly require at the end of class to check for student understanding. The day’s exit ticket focused on essay writing and asked students to outline a claim, clarification, evidence, and justification in response to the question “Why should Bread and Roses remain open?”

Brian Jones represented the Movement of Rank and File Educators, which describes itself as the “social justice caucus” of the city’s teachers union. Jones, who teaches at an elementary school in Brooklyn, said that as long as there are still opportunities at Bread and Roses for students to grow and change, the school should not be phased out.

“Department of Education, you are in the education business,” Jones said. “This is not McDonald’s; this is not a franchise which you just open or close based on the data. These are human beings.”

Some speakers said they were worried that a dwindling population of students and staff would leave the remaining students with fewer of the services they needed, such as help with college applications. Senior Travarn Bell spoke of the teachers’ dedication in putting aside extra time to work with students on college applications.

“Before I came to Bread and Roses, I didn’t think about college,” he said. “I didn’t think I could make it, but the teachers changed that.”

The hearing at Bread and Roses was one of four held on Wednesday. The city also held hearings at Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications in the Bronx; M.S. 142 John Philip Sousa in the Bronx; and Law, Government and Community Service High School in Queens.