Streams

Under Public Pressure, City Retreats on Cleveland and Bushwick High School Closings

Thursday, April 26, 2012 - 11:20 AM

3:55 p.m. | Updated Hours before a board was scheduled to vote on the closing of 26 public schools, city officials withdrew two of them from contention, retreating from their original plans in the face of strong opposition from elected officials.

The two schools, Grover Cleveland High School and Bushwick Community High School, have little in common.

Cleveland, which earned a C on its last school progress report and has more than 2,400 students, has been a staple of the Ridgewood, Queens, neighborhood for decades, taking in thousands of students whose academic skills run the gamut, but graduating fewer of them in recent years.

Bushwick Community High School is a transfer school, a last-chance place for students who do not succeed in more traditional schools like Grover Cleveland, and have earned 10 or fewer credits of the 44 they will need to graduate. Bushwick has 420 students and, like Cleveland, earned a C on its last progress report. In 2010, it landed on the state's list of persistently lowest achieving schools, which does not differentiate between transfer schools that serve the neediest children and traditional public schools.

Both schools were recommended for closing based on their graduation rates, which are below the city's average. But in both cases, elected officials intervened to try to spare the schools.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a graduate of Grover Cleveland, held a hearing earlier this month at which she criticized the Education Department for, among other things, spending millions of dollars to bring vocational classes back to the school, when they had been disbanded years before.

And last week, a senior staff member for the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, placed two phone calls to officials at the department to ask that Bushwick Community remain open.

The call from Ms. Quinn's office came after weeks in which teachers, students and advocacy organizations had been trying to convince the right power brokers that this was the wrong decision.

"We knew what we had to do," said Jesus Gonzalez, an organizer for Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for immigrants and low-income people.

While teachers analyzed the school's graduation and Regents passing rates to bolster claims the school was improving, Mr. Gonzalez organized the most motivated students and lobbied every elected official whose district included the high school. The night before the public hearing, 10 students placed 30 phone calls each to classmates, urging them to attend and show support.

Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the Board of Regents, visited the school and was moved. "Bushwick takes kids that no one else takes; we need more Bushwicks, not fewer," she said. She visited again, this time bringing along city education officials, hoping to convince them to keep the school open.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Gonzalez's phone rang with a call from a Department of Education official. Bushwick Community High School, which gave him another chance after he, like so many others, dropped out of Bushwick High School, had earned a second chance of its own.

"I think a lot of it was a combination of organizing the community, political leverage from elected officials, and also a good media strategy," he said.

Ms. Tisch called the decision to keep Bushwick open "honorable."

"It's the first thing that's made me smile since the pineapple," she said, referring to a confusing parable about a hare and a pineapple that appeared on last week's state reading exam and caused a public uproar.

City officials said they withdrew plans to close Grover Cleveland and Bushwick Community because the schools were showing signs of improvement -- more students were passing their classes and Regents exams. And when city officials visited the schools for their yearly quality review, both were rated "proficient" or higher.

This information has been available to city officials and the public for months, yet the two schools did not make the initial cut earlier this month, when the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, removed seven other schools from the closing list, citing their improved performance.

"Over the past several weeks, during public hearings and visits from my senior leadership, we looked closely at schools whose performance and quality of instruction have shown positive signs in the last two years," Mr. Walcott said in a statement. "We have come to believe that two of those schools -- Grover Cleveland High School and Bushwick Community High School -- have demonstrated an ability to continue their improvements without the more comprehensive actions that are clearly needed at 24 other schools."

Students at Grover Cleveland heard the news at 10:15 on Thursday morning, when their principal Denise Vittor jumped on the loudspeaker to make the announcement.

"I'm telling you, it was kind of like New Year's Eve," Ms. Vittor said. "It was a happy feeling.”

And Ms. Nolan, in a joint statement with Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative to the Panel for Educational Policy, thanked city officials.

“We are appreciative and grateful that New York City Department of Education has removed Grover Cleveland High School from the 'turnaround' list," the statement said. "They have recognized the strength and improvement under Principal Denise Vittor and all the excellence that the Grover Cleveland community offers. We continue to express our opposition and concern with the proposed 'turnaround' model, and we urge the city to drop their quest to close all these schools, especially the large comprehensive Queens High Schools.”

Ernest Logan, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, had been so moved during a recent visit to Bushwick Community that he wrote an impassioned plea to keep the school open that was published on SchoolBook earlier this week. Mr. Logan issued a statement in response:

“Bushwick Community High School, a transfer school, and Grover Cleveland High School should never have been on the latest school closure list. We are pleased that the Chancellor came to understand the individual circumstances and performance of these two schools. We hope he will join us in creating a whole new approach to low-performing schools, one that identifies struggling schools early on and properly supports them rather than waiting until a school is ‘too far gone’ and closes them.”

A third school, Junior High School 80 the Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, earned a B for student progress on its report from the city last year and received high marks on its quality review. But city officials said that when they visited the school this year, they were unimpressed with the quality of teaching, and students' scores on the state math and reading exams had dropped.

Both spared schools were jubilant.

“The cheers were echoing in the hallways,” said Nancy Edindjiklian, an art teacher at Grover Cleveland.

“Once the principal told us, students started running back and forth in the hallway and knocking on other teachers’ doors,” said Kaylene Vasquez, 16, while standing outside the school.

“In the hallway, they were like, ‘Cleve-what? Cleveland!’” Marlene Abreu, 16, chimed in. “Everybody was just screaming.”

Marlene said she was in John Pritchard’s third-period earth science class when she heard the news. Another teacher, Catherine Urso, ran to congratulate Mr. Pritchard. “She was in the back in her offices, and she comes out and gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek,” Marlene said.

Ms. Vittor had been fielding congratulatory emails and phone calls all day, she said. One e-mail open on her computer monitor read “Congratulations!” in enormous, all-capital red letters.

“I’m telling you, it was kind of like New Year’s Eve,” Ms. Vittor said. “It was a happy feeling.”

Not everyone had heard the news at Bushwick Community High School.

"For real?" said Cristina Alvarez, 21, when told. "I'm very excited. This school is just one big hope. We're a family. They care for us. We stick together. They make sure we graduate and go to college afterward."

Ms. Alvarez said that she was a 21-year-old senior because she had taken time off after giving birth to a daughter two years ago. "I had a baby, so I had time off. But the teachers encouraged me to come back and get my diploma. I'm determined to get a high school diploma to prove to her that her mommy did it and she can, too."

Rasheen Branch, 20, a senior in baggy jeans with silver nose ring, said, "I'm happy it's not being shut down. A lot of people need a place to go."

"If they were to close it," he said, "that would be crazy."

He said that he had not felt safe at his old school, the Science Skills Center High School for Science, Technology and the Creative Arts in downtown Brooklyn, and quit going out of fear.

"My old school was not safe," he said. "There was constant gang violence. I didn't go because the school was not safe. My sister told me about this school. I thought it'd be like other high schools. But I felt safe. I felt at home here.

"I've been here for two years and I have not seen one fight," he said. "I haven't seen no guns. I haven't seen no knives. I haven't seen anything in this school." He said he has been accepted at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he will study study criminal justice.

Francisco Gil, 17, said he had dropped out of high school to help support his mother and younger brother. “I was working in a deli,” he said. “I was helping out my mom with the rent and food.” But he has since returned to school. “I’m glad it’s not closing,” he said. “If this school closes, I’ll have no other place to go.”

Tira Randall, Bushwick’s principal, said she was so happy to hear her school had been spared that she put on a special black-and-white suit jacket for the occasion.

“I am overwhelmed and delighted,” she said, adding, “I hope this brings more students to our doors. There are thousands of this type of student that need a chance to graduate from high school.”

Ann Farmer and Theodoric Meyer contributed reporting.

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