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Schools facing closure again cover well-worn steps at hearings

Whether it was their first public hearing or their fifth, supporters of several schools that the city has proposed closing brought high energy to closure hearings held Tuesday evening.

Both Herbert H. Lehman High School and the High School of Graphic Communication Arts were briefly slated to close last year before a labor ruling halted the Department of Education’s plans. Now they are on the chopping block again. On Tuesday, Lehman’s vocal supporters reprised their support, while at Graphics, the debate shifted to what would move into the space instead. Supporters of a third school whose closure hearing was held on Tuesday, J.H.S. 302 in Brooklyn, brought fresh energy to the hearing, a first for the school.

The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools, which culminates with a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy. The panel, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote March 11 on closure plans for 24 schools.

Herbert H. Lehman High School

As closure looms over Herbert H. Lehman High School for the third time in four years, teachers and students once again pleaded with Department of Education officials to give them more time to improve during an impassioned public hearing Tuesday night.

Principal Rose Lobianco said the school had shown signs of improvement over the last year, despite the toll that a year of uncertainty had taken on the “emotional stability” of both students and staff. On its most recent report card from the city, Lehman’s grade improved from an “F” to a “D” and Lobianco argued that, if given more time, the school would be able to improve even more.

“It has been a tumultuous year,” Lobianco said. “If our community had not experienced all of these constant changes, our growth could have been even more dramatic.”

About 350 students, teachers, alumni and parents filled the school’s auditorium to oppose the proposed phase-out of Lehman, which would see the East Bronx school gradually move towards closure by 2016. Under the proposed plan, Lehman, one of the last remaining comprehensive schools in the city, would be replaced by four new small schools.

“When a school is not serving all of its students well, we have to take action,” said deputy chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky at the start of the hearing. “It’s important to acknowledge that there are students that this school is currently not serving well and that’s why we’re here. These students deserve better.”

Polakow-Suransky cited low graduation rates and below-average credit accumulation as signs that the school should be phased out and replaced with better alternatives. Lehman graduates just 50 percent of its students in four years, compared to the city average of 65 percent, which places it in the bottom two percent of schools citywide.

But many of those who spoke at the hearing argued the school hasn’t been given a fair chance to improve and has been hurt by constantly changing reform models imposed by the city. Lehman was first threatened with closure in 2010 but ultimately remained open as a “restart” school under an initiative that allocated up to $2 million in federal funding to improve its performance.

But less than a year later, a new twist threw the school back into uncertainty. In 2012, the city decided to close and reopen Lehman under the “turnaround” model, which meant officials could replace the principal and half of the teaching staff. The school narrowly escaped closure when an independent arbitrator ruled the turnaround plan violated the city’s collective bargaining agreements with the teacher and administrator unions, but half of its teachers left anyway.

In addition to seeing its grade from the city tick upward, in the past year, Lehman has also seen an increase in the percentage of juniors earning five or more credits and a drop in enrollment from 3,590 to 2,890, which Lobianco said has relieved some of the pressure on the school’s resources. The school also scored a “B” on how well it prepares its students for college on its most recent progress report.

Some of those opposed to the phase-out also pointed out that Lobianco is not being given enough time to affect real change in the school, despite early positive trends. Lobianco took over in September 2011, after the former principal left amid controversy surrounding grade inflation. In her year and a half at the school, Lobianco has become a popular figure and a number of speakers testified that she should be given more time.

“Who hires someone, brings them in, and then tells them within the first couple of months that they’re not doing the job?” said Elvin Flores, parent association president, during his speech.

The hearing lasted for more than three and a half hours and was marked by cheering, applause, and standing ovations honoring Lobianco. Students presented videos of their work, spoke about the support of their teachers and waved colorful posters reading “Save Lehman.”

During the public comment portion of the hearing, 17-year-old Jamillets Rodriguez shared her story of success at the school to roaring applause. Rodriguez said she had struggled with spelling and math before coming to Lehman but is now in three Advanced Placement courses and has a 95 percent average.

“How come I have learned all that at this school? How can the teachers be so bad if I could do all that?” she said.

–Mariana Ionova

High School of Graphic Communication Arts

By the end of Tuesday’s hearing about the city’s plan to close Graphics for good, the discussion had turned into a debate over charter and district public schools.

The parents and community members who signed up to speak out against the city’s plan to close down the 88-year-old school were overshadowed by scores of parents from Upper West Success Academy, who testified in support of the city’s plan to open a charter middle school in Graphics’ building.

The hearing was a far cry from multiple previous hearings held at the school, which has faced closure multiple times in the past year. In the past, students and teachers have turned out to defend their school in droves.

Explaining the department’s plans to close Graphics over time by reducing it by one grade each year, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the school’s “longstanding performance struggles” had not abated —unsurprising given the rocky start to the school year. If the phase-out proposal is approved, Graphics will not admit any new students this year and will close for good in June 2016.

“Most current students will be able to complete high school at Graphics, assuming that they continue to earn credits on schedule and pass the required Regents exams,” Grimm said. Under a new policy, students who want to leave can also apply to other high schools.

Graphics freshman Bryan Conde, who said he takes his school’s graphic design courses seriously, does not want to leave. He said students would miss out on opportunities to learn creative software programs that he thinks will come in handy when he’s looking for a career.

“I really don’t want this school to close,” Conde said. “It’s got almost everything you need. I like art, and the graphic design art class is really fun because the projects, you get to use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I’m planning on taking those classes for the next three years because I want to be a graphic designer.”

Sara Valenzuela, freshman at Graphics, said that she wouldn’t leave her school even though she commutes from Astoria in Queens to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan every day. Her mother Martha said Graphics was Sara’s first pick, and she fell in love with the school’s photography courses.

“I want to stay here because they have photography and darkroom privileges,” said Valenzuela, who enjoys being able to go outside with her class to shoot photos. “There won’t be any students after this year, and there might not be any good photography schools either.”

But Success Academy supporters said there are other important uses for the space that be vacated as Graphics phases out.

Jerome Charles Renners said he wants to keep his daughter at Upper West Success elementary school, but its current space that it shares with four high schools does not allow for expansion into a middle school.

“I’m really adamant about all the kids in New York City having quality school choices,” said Renners, who wore a grey T-shirt with “Success Academy” in bright orange letters to match his orange sneakers. “We’re not trying to kick anyone out. We are simply trying to find a middle school space for our kids because we’re only a K through four.”

Parents of Graphics students and community education council members expressed outrage that the proposal for a charter middle school was even being considered. “It is a slow, methodical process of sacrificing the school and its students on the altar of political agenda — the charter school agenda,” said Eric Goldberg, who sits on District 2’s elected parent council.

“There is no [Upper West] Success Charter Middle School,” Goldberg said. “It hasn’t opened. It has no track record. It has no students. It has no faculty. But we’re reserving space for this school which is going to crowd out other schools and impact the educational attainment of students in this building.”

Marc Landis, a District 6 city council candidate, suggested that charter schools look for space in private and parochial institutions that were shutting down instead of taking the district’s public school spaces. He said the city should stop allowing charter schools to open up in Department of Education buildings, a policy proposal that many Democratic candidates for mayor have made.

Success Academy parent Antonia Kosovos countered, arguing that charter schools should have an equal right to use public school buildings. “What I’ve heard from individuals here is ‘our gymnasium, our cafeteria, our community.’ What community? We’re all taxpayers. You don’t have any more right to the public funds than the taxpayers do.”

Disenchanted, some Graphics parents left halfway through the hearing, leaving the Success Academy supporters dominating the auditorium until the meeting’s end.

–Crystal Kang

J.H.S. 302

The atmosphere at Rafael Cordero Junior High School 302 on Tuesday evening at times felt more like a homecoming than a closure hearing. Some students sang on the East New York’s school stage, while others performed a choreographed dance to demonstrate their passion for the school’s arts program.

Fourteen-year-old Ann Madhoo, who recently participated in an oratory competition through the school, invoked the language of the Civil Rights movement to communicate her commitment to Cordero. “We shall overcome this,” Madhoo declared, prompting a standing ovation from parents, teachers and classmates in the audience.

But David Weiner, deputy chancellor for talent, labor and innovation for the Department of Education, said the school simply isn’t succeeding. “Given the school’s continued decline in performance, DOE believes that only the most serious intervention — the gradual phase-out of J.H.S. 302 — will address its longstanding struggles and will allow new school options to better serve students and the community,” he said.

Weiner noted that only 27 percent of Cordero students performed at grade-level on math tests last year, and only 20 percent performed on grade level in English.  Attendance, at 88 percent, is below the city’s average of 93 percent, and the New York City Department of Education gave the school an overall “F” grade on its 2011-12 progress report. The New York State Education Department counts Cordero among the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.

Weiner said the department is recommending that the school no longer admit sixth grade students after the current academic year, eventually phasing out completely by spring 2015. The school would be replaced by two new district middle schools, while the Achievement First Apollo Elementary School, a charter that is also located in the building, would move forward with plans for an expansion up to the eighth grade.

Weiner emphasized that the decade-long process of closing schools and replacing them has yielded positive results. “Fortunately, the schools that have been phased in have significantly outperformed phase-out schools,” Weiner said.

But Evelyn Cruz, speaking on behalf of U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, said “charter schools are usurping public school space.” Meanwhile, she said the congresswoman is concerned that Cordero, with as many as 39 students per class, is not getting enough resources to succeed. “It is a design for failure, not a design for success,” she said.

Teacher Oral Brady argued that the school faces added obstacles because it serves an especially high needs population of English Language Learners, special needs students, and children who are homeless or in the foster care system.

Given those challenges, he said the principal, Lisa Linder, who arrived in 2007, and faculty have launched new initiatives, debuting special learning academies devoted to the arts and law, while rewarding attendance and good behavior. The school is also poised to expand a partnership with the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation through a federal grant aimed at providing new resources to students and their families.

But Brady said the school needs more time to demonstrate the success of those new programs. “There’s a battle plan to turn things around,” he said. “Can you imagine when George Bush sent the surge into Iraq if the generals told them to go home?”

Meanwhile, Jonell Pluck, the mother of a sixth grader at the school, said the “F” in Cordero’s progress report should stand for “fortitude” and “fight,” not failure, and she accused the education department of sending the wrong message to students. “There is no phasing out in life,” she said. “There will be people telling you you aren’t doing good. They will shut you down. … We need to continue to fight.”

–Jessica Gould