Students at Manhattan Theatre Lab Vow to Fight School Closing

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WNYC's Yasmeen Khan

Students at Manhattan Theatre Lab High School are not planning to leave quietly. Many of them say they take it personally that the city wants to close their school, as part of the phase out and shrinkage of 25 schools, and they are planning to make themselves heard at the hearing for their school on Tuesday night.

"The school is not based on numbers," said Eliot Tomlinson, 16, a sophomore. "It's based on real, living human beings who are trying and pushing to do their best. It makes me feel like they think we're not trying hard enough when we really are."

Keyana Griffin, 16, a junior, said the school closing issue came up recently when she applied for an internship.

"When I told them I went to Manhattan Theatre Lab, they asked me, 'Oh that's a school on the list for proposal for phase-out?' That's embarrassing," she said.

Eliot and Keyana are two students who plan to attend the school's hearing. There are others. Student council members have been working on how to present their arguments, practicing speeches and reviewing lists of talking points.

They are also preparing a talent show to perform before the hearing, in the hopes their work will attract attention. Many students said they simply want to have a voice in the process.

"I would love to have an actual meeting with the people who are deciding to close our school down," said Daphne Cayetano, 16, a junior.

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on whether to close or shrink the 25 schools on Feb. 9. Frank Thomas, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the decision to phase out a school is never easy.

"We understand the emotion that students may feel regarding the process, so we offer them extensive support during this difficult time," he said. "But we strongly believe that parents and children in this community stand to benefit from a stronger, higher quality school in the future.”

The performing arts high school opened under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2004 as part of the small-school movement. It resides in the basement of the Martin Luther King Campus, a building that houses five other schools. In addition to the academic curriculum, students take classes in acting, dance and stage design.

Education officials assigned the school F's in all areas of its progress report for the 2010-2011 school year, including student performance, student progress and the school's environment (a category partially based on a survey of students, parents and teachers).

Last year, the graduation rate for students finishing high school in four years was 46 percent, far lower than the city-wide rate of 65 percent.

The principal, Evelyn Collins, said she believes that, given the talent in this year's senior class, graduation rates will be back up closer to the overall city rate in 2012. She also said the school's six-year graduation rate is nearly 78 percent, which is higher than the city's numbers in that category.

"Kids should graduate in four years, but not all kids are the same," said Ms. Collins. "So some kids, based on their background, it may take them five years. It doesn’t mean that they’re not successful or that they are failures. It simply means that it took them five years."

But convincing the Education Department of the school's academic merits will be difficult. Education officials have said "drastic action" is necessary, and the best way to serve future students is to phase out the school and open a new one.