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Closure plan debated at school where parents called for change

Reprising a march they held last fall, parents and community leaders stood outside P.S. 64 Pura Belpre with signs and mock sirens and declared a “state of emergency” in District 9 Thursday evening just before a public hearing about whether the South Bronx school should be phased out.

Local residents agreed on two things: P.S. 64 remains a failing school, and they are also frustrated with the Department of Education. But they had different views on what to do next.

Everybody, including department officials, recognizes that P.S. 64 is in need of a fresh start. At the hearing, parents complained that their children almost never come home with homework, that administrators are nearly impossible to reach on the phone, and that teachers are incompetent. But while some accept that the school is beyond salvation and want the department to provide a better setting for current students, others in the community think a total closure is a bad idea.

Marilyn Espada, a P.S. 64 parent on the district Community Education Council, echoed the cynicism shared by many when she spoke out against the phase-out. The DOE wants to put two smaller schools in P.S. 64’s place, but Espada said she did not think they would be any different.

“It basically goes back to square one – another failing school,” Espada said.

Edna Wilson, one of the women protesting before the meeting, stood next to her granddaughter, third grader Gianee, and said she didn’t think Gianee would be ready for her annual state tests. Wilson isn’t fighting the phase-out, but she said she is very concerned about what will be done immediately to help the students who will remain at P.S. 64 as it shrinks over time.

“If the school closes, I want to know what they’re going to do from now until June,” said Wilson, who plans to transfer Gianee to another school next year. “Because right now, they act like they don’t care.”

The department recently announced that it would give first crack at vacant seats in higher-performing schools to students in schools that are in the process of closing. When he briefed reporters about the new policy, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said part of the inspiration for the change was a conversation he had with parents at P.S. 64.

Only 18 percent of students at P.S. 64, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade, are at grade level in English. Twenty-seven percent are at grade-level in math. The New York State Education Department designated P.S. 64 a “Priority” school, meaning it is in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.

Instruction at P.S. 64 is in both English and Spanish. Almost half of the 884 students are English Language Learners. Over a dozen parents spoke, and about half of them spoke in Spanish. Many in the audience, composed of over 50 people, listened through headphones as a man in front translated the proceedings into Spanish for them. Some mothers cried as they pleaded with the department to put improve schools in District 9.

“I don’t think it’s fair for my son to go through this at this age,” said P.S. 64 parent Maria Hernandez, addressing Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, who sat at the front with Espada and other department officials.

Mother after mother told horror stories about P.S. 64 and the need for a significant change, and Rello-Anselmi tried at the end of the meeting to parlay those sentiments into support for a phase-out.

“We agree that a school is more than brick and mortar,” Rello-Anselmi said. “It’s what’s in it. It’s the community. … But we can no longer wait.”

State Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson arrived halfway through the meeting. She said everybody, including the department and other policymakers, must take blame for P.S. 64’s failures and thanked the parents present for speaking out. She also said tat she agrees that P.S. 64 is in need of new leadership – she made a point to say Principal Tara O’Brien is “struggling” – but stopped short of supporting a full phase-out.

“School closures are not always the answer,” Gibson said after the hearing, echoing comments that local legislators have made increasingly often as the Bloomberg administration winds to a close. “And sometimes it feels like that’s all the department looks at.”

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