Peace Academy M.S. 596 has struggled for years. Led by a rotating cast of principals and facing dwindling enrollment, the Clinton Hill middle school was nearly closed by the Bloomberg administration in 2012.
This year, despite a name change and yet another new principals, it’s in even worse shape, enrolling just 12 sixth graders and prompting new questions about whether the school should continue in its current form.
“It would have been a miracle to save that school,” said David Goldsmith, president of the parent council that represents the District 13 school.
Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who oppose school closures except as a last resort — may be close to doing what their predecessors would not. Peace Academy could be folded into another school, Goldsmith said, part of a new consolidation strategy that would merge some struggling schools with another school nearby that is helmed by a top-notch principal.
Fariña’s broader plan, presented in two interviews last week, would share characteristics of the school closures that elicited outrage during the Bloomberg years: A struggling school would eventually lose its name, its principal, and cease to exist. But the teachers and principals unions, strong allies of de Blasio that sued to stop Bloomberg’s attempts to close schools, say they aren’t distressed by the possibility of mergers, in part because relatively few school staff members would be affected.
“There are going to be some cases where this absolutely makes sense,” Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president for the union that represents principals and assistant principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Some schools are just too small to sustain themselves.”
The Bloomberg administration closed large schools, causing many teachers to lose their positions. Under a merger, teachers from both schools would be expected to remain at the consolidated school, city officials said, and they would not have to reapply for their jobs. Those provisions could make the plans palatable for the United Federation of Teachers.
“We are discussing the issues with DOE,” teachers-union spokesman Dick Riley said.
Teachers whose positions are cut will be assigned to different subjects or grades than they’ve previously taught, city officials said. If the combined school ends up with duplicated positions, the least experienced teachers from either school will lose their positions, in accordance with union rules, Riley said.
School leaders stand to be the most affected by the mergers, because consolidating administrations means there will be two principals for one spot and an excess of assistant principals. But Cannizzaro said he wasn’t concerned because Fariña’s plans were on a “very small scale right now.”
“I don’t think, at this point, that we’re anywhere close to discussing [mergers for] all under-enrolled schools,” Cannizzaro said.
Differences between the Bloomberg administration’s approach and what appears to be Fariña’s are calming other groups that opposed closures.
For one, the small schools that appear to be at risk lack the large alumni associations that sprung to the aid of some schools threatened by the Bloomberg administration. (An exception might be Boys and Girls High School, but it’s unclear whether that proposal — developed by the principal — is part of Fariña’s overarching plans.)
Tensions could still emerge once the city releases the name of the schools that could be consolidated, or when the appear before the Panel for Educational Policy. No schools will be fully consolidated until the start of the 2016-17 school year, although some changes could begin next year.
And while the Bloomberg administration’s strategy of phasing out closing schools one grade at a time was designed to minimize disruption, in reality, staff members often fled and students were encouraged to transfer out, leaving a hollowed-out school. The new plan would offer fewer incentives for staff and students to leave, potentially minimizing disruption for students and parents.
If the two schools are already sharing a building, the city would be able to promise parents that their children would stay with their classmates and maintain relationships with many of the adults at the school.
“The pluses for our people, students with disabilities, are that they’re allowing the schools to stay in the same building,” said Lori Podvesker, a special education advocate and member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.
The city’s move to draw attention to the consolidation plan also provides political benefits. De Blasio’s plan to improve 94 Renewal Schools got off to a slow start this year, and his approach has drawn criticism from those who favored Bloomberg’s more aggressive approach.
“This is a struggling school intervention strategy,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in an email, noting that some schools that aren’t struggling will be merged, too.
That framing gives de Blasio another talking point as he tries to make his case to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature that they should renew mayoral control of the city school system and stay out of the city’s education policy affairs, though the plan has attracted attention from familiar critics.
“Masking the depth of failure by combining good schools with bad ones and diluting statistics is a move designed to shirk accountability and keep special interests satisfied,” Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement.
The mergers would also help solve a logistical problem that has emerged years after the city created hundreds of small schools that compete for student enrollment. Dozens of schools citywide, and nine Renewal Schools, enroll fewer than 150 students this year — eating up administrative resources in a system serving more than 1 million students.
Kaye said that merger plans are in the works for as many as a dozen schools, but the city has stayed mum on which schools will be involved. So far, the city has only confirmed that a merger is happening at two schools: M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, co-located middle schools in Crown Heights.
Goldsmith said that district officials are having “serious conversations” about a consolidation at Peace Academy, which like Boys and Girls and M.S. 334 are part of the de Blasio administration’s School Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools.
But school and District 13 officials are not eager to discuss those talks. Several options are still on the table for the tiny school, Kaye said, like changing its curriculum, revamping teacher training, or replacing the principal.
District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Principal Amy Rodriguez declined to comment — although her denial came through another principal.
“We are running our schools,” said James O’Brien, principal of the Brooklyn Community High School for Communication, Arts and Media, which shares a building with Peace Academy.
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