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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

City Decides to Spare School of Second Chances

The schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, retreated on Thursday from a plan to shut down a last-chance high school for students who have dropped out or have failed at traditional schools.

On Thursday morning, officials announced that the school, Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn, would be spared. The city’s Panel for Education had been scheduled to vote on Thursday evening on the closing, and on the fates of other schools.

Low graduation rates landed the school, which has 382 students, on a state list of troubled schools and made it eligible for $800,000 in federal grant money; officials said they believed they could get the money only by putting the school through the so-called turnaround model backed by the Obama administration. This called for closing the school and reopening it with the same students, but with roughly half of the staff members replaced — a move city officials ultimately decided was not necessary because the school was showing signs of improvement.

Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens, which has 2,005 students, was also spared.

That left 24 schools, some among the oldest in the city, facing the educational panel’s decision on whether they should be closed and reconstituted with new names and faculty members. A few minutes before midnight on Thursday, the panel approved plans to close those schools, each of which will lose its name and gain a new one next fall when they reopen. Meanwhile, the Education Department will require teachers to reapply for their jobs, and those.who do not make the cut will be replaced.

The city’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said earlier: “We want to make sure that when we take a step as dramatic as closing a school and replacing it, that it’s going to be necessary to do that in order to improve that school. And where it’s possible to get real improvements without taking such dramatic steps, we want to do that.”

The reprieve for the two schools came after nearly four months of upheaval about the plan to close and replace 33 schools using a provision in the teachers’ contract that would allow committees to vet and remove many of the instructors.

The plan was first proposed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in January during his State of the City address so he could bypass stalled negotiations with the city’s teachers’ union over a new evaluation system, a condition of a nearly $60 million federal grant. If state officials agreed to this turnaround for the schools, the city could qualify without reaching a deal with the union.

But elected officials across the state disagreed with the plans for Bushwick Community, a transfer school that accepts only students older than 17 who have earned few of the 44 credits needed to graduate. Some are new parents who dropped out of other schools to have babies, or students who quit school to work and have gone back for a diploma.

As news spread through the school on Thursday, the mood among students and teachers was celebratory. The principal, Tira Randall, said she had worn a special suit and had done her hair differently for the occasion.

“This school is just one big hope,” said Cristina Alvarez, 21, a senior who took time off from school to give birth to a daughter two years ago. “They care for us. They make sure we graduate and go to college afterward.”

At Grover Cleveland, the principal, Denise Vittor, jumped on the school’s loudspeaker the moment she heard the news. “It’s like New Year’s Eve,” she said.

Since the mayor’s January speech, Bushwick students, teachers and advocacy groups have tried to convince officials that the school, known for offering second and third chances, deserved one of its own.

Teachers sifted through data looking for signs of improvement, and a group of students made 300 telephone calls to classmates and officials, urging their support. The chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl H. Tisch, visited the school twice and said she was moved by what she had seen. People working for the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, a likely mayoral candidate, made two phone calls to the Education Department asking for a reprieve.

In Queens, students and teachers rushed to the defense of Grover Cleveland, as did Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who was a graduate of the school.

City education officials decided to take a second look last week at all the schools on the closing list that earned C’s on their progress reports last year but were showing glimmers of improvement. There were five, said Mr. Polakow-Suransky, but after weighing testimony at public hearings, the results of quality reviews and performance data, only two were found to be eligible for dispensations. Mr. Walcott made the reprieve decision on Wednesday.

Altogether, 9 schools were removed from the original list of 33 — 7 of them on April 2, because they had scored A’s and B’s on their latest progress reports.

The pressure from elected officials was “not front and center,” Mr. Polakow-Suransky said. “It’s a neat narrative that is not necessarily based in any reality.”

Ms. Tisch called the city’s decision “honorable.”

Jesus Gonzalez, an organizer for Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for immigrants and low-income people, who has worked with students and staff members at Bushwick Community, said he was overjoyed.

Early on Thursday, he said, his phone rang with a call from am education official. Bushwick Community High School, which years ago gave him another chance after he dropped out of a large troubled high school, would stay open. Mr. Gonzalez was the messenger who relayed the news to his alma mater.

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