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Brownsville Parents Ask Chancellor to Spare Their Schools From Closing

Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - 10:22 PM

WNYC

Sue Hackshaw had one big question for schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott at the town hall meeting Wednesday night for District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

"We want to know if you will spend one day at each school before you make a final decision," she said, referring to three schools in the neighborhood that the city may close because of poor performance.

Mr. Walcott told the crowd of more than 100 people in the auditorium at Public School 156 Waverly, "We have not indicated to any of the schools on the list here, or throughout the city, that they're going to close or phaseout."

He said he was not ready to make a commitment to visit any schools, and he went on to describe a careful engagement process involving the schools and department staff members before any decisions are made.

Ms. Hackshaw asked him again if he would visit the schools, and he repeated, "I cannot make a commitment," but he said his staff would visit them.

"Parents, are you in agreement with him?" Ms. Hackshaw shouted into the microphone. The crowd yelled "No!" and several people followed her out in protest, joined by City Councilman Charles Barron.

Ms. Hackshaw, who said her son attends General D. Chappie James Elementary Science School, was among the parents and teachers who said the three troubled schools in this low-income community have lost more than $1 million this year from budget cuts and cannot improve without more resources.

Each fall, the Department of Education issues progress reports with A to F letter grades. Then it picks those schools that get the lowest marks and considers closing them if officials do not think the schools can improve.

The Panel for Educational Policy voted to close more than 20 schools this year. The schools do not close right away, but instead phase out gradually as new schools open in the same buildings to serve incoming classes.

In addition to concerns about its schools, Brownsville has been hit hard by violence. Late last month, Zurana Horton, 34, was shot to death while picking up one of her children. She was caught in the crossfire of competing groups of youths.

The three schools in Brownsville that received low marks on their progress reports are: P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz, where Ms. Horton was shot, and the General D. Chappie James Elementary and Middle School of Science.

The schools are among 20 elementary and middle schools identified for possible closing. The city identified another 27 high schools and charter schools on Wednesday.

Those who stayed in the auditorium Wednesday told the chancellor their schools need smaller class sizes and that P.S. 298 does not have a library now because its librarian was eliminated. They asked the chancellor about what would replace the schools if they do close.

Terrell Tomer, 12, who attends seventh grade at the Middle School for Art and Philosophy, told the chancellor that his school shares a building with the Kings Collegiate Charter School, which has more technology, like Smart Boards.

"The charter school always think they're better than us," he said, when it was his turn at the microphone.

Mr. Walcott assured him that was not an acceptable situation. He also told the audience that there was no grand plan to replace the struggling schools with charters, as some had feared, and that schools that are closed could also be replaced with regular district schools.

The recent shooting was fresh on the minds of those in attendance. Mavis Yon, who teaches fifth grade at General D. Chappie James Elementary School of Science, also known as K631, told Mr. Walcott "this community is in crisis" because of families who cannot read or who have trouble with drugs.

"I understand my function is not to be the mother, but sometimes I've got to be the mother," she said, adding that she has fed children and bought them clothes.

The chancellor thanked her for her service and reminded the audience that he had previously headed the New York Urban League. He said he was working with the police to provide more safety. But in a time of budget cuts, he could not promise to restore school libraries and other services that have suffered.

"It's not just closing schools or phasing schools out, it's a complex structure," he said. "Also making sure whatever the family structure is, or wherever that child is going home to, that they're able to reinforce that on a regular basis. And that's the dialogue we need to have."

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