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The School-Closing Vote

Thursday, February 09, 2012 - 04:40 PM

11:16 p.m. | Updated After about an hour of discussion, the Panel for Educational Policy voted Thursday night to close 18 city schools and remove the middle school grades from 5 more.

As expected, the panelists, most of whom were appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, voted to approve all the school closing recommendations. The representatives for Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn voted against most of the closing proposals.

The representative for Staten Island voted with the mayor's block, except for the proposal to close P.S. 14, the first school to be recommended for closing in her borough.

The raucous evening ended as many had anticipated, but unlike in past years the crowd was vastly diminished and the vote came hours earlier than expected.

The panel approved the opening of 16 new schools to replace those that will now start to be gradually phased out, as well as grade expansions for four schools.

Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott planned to hold a news conference later Thursday night. SchoolBook will be there and will pick up the report on the meeting Friday morning.

Note: This last blog entry was updated to correct the vote of the Staten Island representative.


9:54 p.m. | Updated The Panel for Educational Policy debated the wisdom of closing three major career and technical high schools in the Bronx.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education's chief academic officer, and the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, conceded that career and technical schools do give students more options after graduation. But, they said, too few students make it to graduation.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky noted that Samuel Gompers had 600 freshmen four years ago. Now it has only 116 seniors, and it's not clear how many of those 116 came in as freshmen.

"I worked in the Bronx for several years," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said. "Ten years ago there were about 25 high schools; today there are over 100 high schools in the Bronx. The graduation rate has gone up over 10 points over those years. That’s thousands of kids who have options who didn’t before. We’re only halfway."

He said the Education Department's plan is to open 12 new career and technical schools in the next two years. The school that will replace Washington Irving High School in Manhattan will be a careers school, teaching students software design.


9:41 p.m. | Updated Earlier Thursday night, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, explained why the union had called off its alternative hearing at nearby P.S. 20.

Mr. Mulgrew said a group of people, including “at least two dozen” elected officials, were marching to the school, but were told by police to march on the sidewalk. They didn’t want to, he said, so they did an about-face and went into the Panel for Educational Policy hearing.

“We were going to march to an alternate site, then some of us were going to come back here," he said. "We were marching to the alternate site and the police said you have to march on the sidewalk. We said we’re not marching on the sidewalk. So we marched down the street and made a right turn into Brooklyn Tech.”

Some members of the crowd had criticized the union for its alternative plan.

"Fight and stay don't walk away," Alexi Shalom, a student at the City University of New York, had chanted outside Brooklyn Technical High School before the meeting began. He said both of his parents are high school teachers.

"I understand the symbolism of having an alternate meeting," he said, "but the only way to stop the vote is to speak up at this meeting."

Inside Brooklyn Tech later, Mr. Mulgrew said, “We’re more than happy to be here."


9:41 p.m. | Updated It's very unusual for principals to publicly defend their schools in front of the press and the panel, but Steven Cobb, the principal of Aspire Preparatory Middle School, felt he had to.

Instead of sending his parents and students and teachers, he went to the Panel for Educational Policy meeting himself Thursday night to ask the panel to recognize the work the school is doing and give it another choice.

"We hit a rough patch in the road," he said, describing the school's performance last year, when the school received an F on its progress report and less than a third of its students met the proficiency bar on the state English exam. The school opened in 2006 to replace M.S. 135, a school that was closing.

"We do believe that we should be afforded another chance," he said. "I was heartened yesterday when I heard there were schools that came off the list, and I hope you will add Aspire Preparatory."


9:39 p.m. | Updated Panel for Educational Policy members reconvened and began discussing the proposals. The representative from the Bronx expressed concerns about phasing out three high schools -- Grace Dodge, Jane Addams and Samuel Gompers -- which would leave the Bronx with far fewer career and technical education programs


9:18 p.m. | Updated Could it be? After little more than three hours of testimony -- as well as chaos and frustration for many -- the Panel for Educational Policy seemed close to a vote on whether to close 23 failing schools.

The public comment period ended, and the panel members were taking a break. They were expected to reconvene, engage in a panel discussion, then vote. Stay tuned.


9:05 p.m. | Updated Eleanor Pettway's voice trembled as she stepped up to take her turn at the microphone at around 8 p.m.

Ms. Pettway, a mother who lives in Brooklyn, clutched two color copies of photographs showing her son Michael's swollen, bruised face. "A picture's worth a thousand words; here's two thousand words," she said. "He was transferred from Kappa VII, where they blackened his eyes. To the point where he did not want to go to his school."

Now, she said, he's thriving at the Academy of Business and Community Development in Brooklyn, with boys that she said he is blessed to consider his brothers. "Since he's been at an all boys school he hasn't had a black eye, he hasn't been bullied," she said.

But in a painful twist, the city had decided Wednesday to spare KAPPA VII, formally known as Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy VII in Brooklyn, and close the Academy of Business and Community Development, known as ABCD.

"He was a safety transfer," she said, adding that her son was sent to ABCD in October. "If that was the case and they knew were going to close the school, why would they transfer my son there?"


8:52 p.m. | Updated Could the Panel for Educational Policy meeting to vote on closing 23 public schools wrap up earlier than in the wee hours of Friday morning? Perhaps. Three hours into the meeting, the crowd had greatly thinned.

Some parents and students gave up on trying to speak. Some of the teachers left to board buses that the United Federation of Teachers had provided to get them to and from the school. And the Occupy the Department of Education group had shrunk.

For the most part, the people who addressed the panel spoke up in opposition to the school closings, but a small number of parents urged the city to open new and better schools.

There was some confusion over how many people had signed up to speak. Some reports said more than 100, others said fewer.


8:46 p.m. | Updated Volunteers from Brooklyn Tech seemed to be expecting a long night, because they set up another snack table in the lobby. They were selling bottles of water, candy bars, cookies and chips.

A parent, Cynthia Yahia, escaped to the lobby to get away from the noise of the meeting. She has a son in kindergarten at P.S. 9 in Brooklyn, which is not in danger of closing, but she said she wanted to support the schools on the chopping block.

She said she was happy about the large turnout. "When the NAACP walked in -- oh, it just warms my heart to see that."

The New York NAACP estimated that about 200 members from 14 branches showed up to the meeting.

She said she hopes protesters will keep the PEP from voting tonight.

"It has to be public, and they can't do it without us -- in theory," she said.

A grandmother, Anyta Brown, has three grandchildren in the city schools. She said she is very involved in education issues, because she wants her grandchildren to have more educational opportunities than what she had.

"I'm here to fight on their behalf," said Ms. Brown. "How would you say it? I want a private education for free."


7:47 p.m. | Updated Rumors that the police were planning to move in and make arrests started to thin out the crowd in the auditorium of Brooklyn Technical High School shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday night. Other members of the audience also started to leave, perhaps in frustration over the confusion and discouraged about their chances of swaying the Panel for Educational Policy's decision about closing the 23 schools.

Unlike last year, very few students spoke.

At times, it was as though several meetings were going on at once, all of them confused and cacophonous, with sound spilling over from one group to the next.

The Occupy the D.O.E. members debated whether they should stay or they should go.

"How do you feel -

"How do you feel -

"About walking out?"

"About walking out?"

The question ping ponged through the center of the auditorium, where a man stood on a chair leading a mic check.

Some chanted "march, march" but momentum never gathered.

"I don't think we should march we should stay, and we need to show them that we need them to support us, said Alba Lamar, who teaches third grade at P.S. 11 in Clinton Hill. She had come to show solidarity with other schools.

Despite the jumble of messages, she said the "13 puppets up there" were getting the main point of the protest.

Soon the crowd took up another chant. "Education is a right, fight, fight, fight."

Out in the hallway outside the auditorium, some people were fighting to get into the room.

“You can’t stop us we’re coming in!” they shouted.

Maria Jimenez, an English teacher at Washington Irving High School, joined in the chanting.

Ms. Jimenez said that the decision to close Washington Irving was about just one thing. “We’re near Union Square. We’re in a rich area. Our students are 50 percent black, 50 percent Hispanic. It’s not about anything but getting us out.”

Andrew Decker, a social studies teacher, said that he was disappointed that the United Federation of Teachers had plans for an alternative hearing. “The fight is in here,” he said.

Washington Irving, Mr. Decker added, “has been categorized as having a culture of failure.” But one of the greatest things about the school, he said, is that there is no testing to filter out students who wish to attend. “We’ve got kids from everywhere, the Heights, the Lower East Side, Staten Island. We’ve got all of New York City, all the problems, all the successes, all the beauty, all the ugliness.”

He said that by advocating for small schools, the mayor was sending out a clear message to big schools and their students: “You don’t count.” And to other schools, Mr. Decker said the message was also clear: “Give us the data that we want.”

The federal School Improvement Grant that the school received three years ago was used on test scores and consultants, he said. Ms. Jimenez added that some of these consultants had no experience with teaching in urban environments.

Christopher Ahearn, an English teacher at the school, said he went to witness the spectacle.

“The mayor has used a myopic focus on data to disperse the students who need the most help,” he said. “It’s like the credit default swaps. Spread out the problems over a larger number of schools, and they’ll seem not to exist any more.”


7:30 p.m. | Updated The chanting of the crowd at the Panel for Educational Policy meeting on school closings by members of the Occupy Wall Street-related group, Occupy the D.O.E., continued, but so did the hearing. The group was loud and their "people's mic" routine made hearing difficult, but speakers lined up at the microphones and made their appeals to save their schools.

While people in the orchestra seats chanted, "How do you spell racist? D-O-E," Alisha Carthy and her 11-year-old son Anthonie were sitting in the balcony trying to listen. Anthonie is a 6th grader at the Middle School for the Arts, a school she specifically chose because Anthonie likes to draw.

"It's loud, I can't hear who's speaking, and I can't see either," she said. "I came here to support the school. I like the school; I don't want it to close."

"I just wanted him to have the opportunities I didn't have. I went to District 18 schools from elementary to high school," she said, adding that she purposely sent her son to a school outside of the district. "I thought this was his chance to break out," she said.


7:12 p.m. | Updated The effort to prevent people from speaking at the Panel for Educational Policy meeting at Brooklyn Technical High School Thursday night continued.

Noah Gotbaum, a member of the community education council in District 3 and a schools activist, took the microphone and declared, "I will be the last person to use this PEP mic."

Mr. Gotbaum instructed the crowd to use "the people's mic." That signaled a plan to have the crowd repeat loudly what speakers said.

"Mic check!" he yelled.

"Mic check," the crowd shouted back.

"We're going to do 'This Little School of Mine,'" he said, as he led the auditorium in a song.

The next speaker took the main mic, though he started by calling out, "Mic check!"

Earlier a Brooklyn parent, Kathleen Kernison, said she was a supporter of charters, and was booed when she voiced support for closing failing schools.

The auditorium can hold 2,500 people and with empty seats scattered about, it appears there were about 1,800 people there.

But only about 100 people signed up to speak -- fewer than in previous years -- not including elected officials, and it appears that the intention of many in the crowd is not to speak themselves but to loudly repeat what others have to say.


7:04 p.m. | Updated The auditorium at Brooklyn Technical High School was filled, but one hour into the Panel for Educational Policy meeting Thursday night the chanting from protesters had effectively prevented anyone from speaking.

The United Federation of Teachers, after being criticized by some protesters for its decision to hold an alternative meeting, abandoned that plan. Instead, the teachers, as well as all the students and parents they were going to bus to P.S. 20, filed into what had been a relatively empty balcony. The room is now as full as it was last year.

Up in the balcony, a group held a banner that read "William E. Grady," a high school that is not on the list to be closed, but could be closed and reopened if the mayor and union do not reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system for 33 schools in need of improvement.

The tug of war for attention between the Occupy the D.O.E. people and the people who came to the panel meeting to speak out against the closings continued as the meeting entered its second hour.


6:53 p.m. | Updated "Shame, shame!" was the cry when the PEP showed a PowerPoint slide titled "Graduation rates at new schools are higher than the high schools they replaced."

Sue, a senior at Robeson High School, which the panel voted to close last year, joined the jeering. She didn't want to give her full name and said she was very upset because she strongly disagreed that small schools are better.

The crowd continued to chant loudly, drowning out the panel

"Use the people's mic!"

"We are the 99 percent"

"We know the panel is going to do what the mayor wants," said John Yanno, a teacher at the Secondary School for Law in Brooklyn, explaining the strategy to shout down the panel. He wore a T-shirt that said Occupy the DOE. He said the group was trying to give teachers and parents confidence. "We need to build a movement."

"They're not going to listen to us anyway, said Peter Rugh, 27. He says he has friends who are teachers.

"We're trying to have the mayor listen to us," said Roz Panepenti, a retired teacher. "This is not about kids."


6:41 p.m. | Updated The meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy got off to a slow start Thursday night as the large crowds that filled the auditorium of Brooklyn Technical High School chanted loudly, drowning out an attempt by the Education Department counsel, Michael Best, to read the agenda.

After booing the chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, as he walked across the auditorium stage, the crowd began chanting loudly. “We are standing up. We are speaking out.” Their efforts were having the intended effect: most of the television cameras were trained on the crowd, not the stage where the panel members sit.

“This is now our meeting,” the crowd chanted.

Compared to last year, when students and parents filled this auditorium with cries of “Cathie Black is whack,” the room is thoroughly dominated by the Occupy the Department of Education group, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Around the room, Occupy members held signs with the name of each school the Education Department intends to close, along with an associated number. For example: “P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz, #25.”

Participants said the plan is for people to speak on behalf of each school and be amplified by the system of repetition they call "the people’s mic."

A member of Occupy the Department of Education, Rosie Frascella, a teacher at a Brooklyn high school, said the teachers union should not have turned its back on the Panel for Educational Policy meeting, although she agreed with the union president, Michael Mulgrew that the public hearing is a “puppet show.”

“Why aren’t there any parents, teachers, or students on this panel?” she said. “We think those are the people who should be voting.”

But she said it is important to maintain a presence at this meeting, and complained the union had diverted buses full of teachers and students to P.S. 20. “I think it’s important to be here,” she said.

In fact, the United Federation of Teachers, which had said it would hold an alternative meeting at a nearby school, Public School 20, seemed to have changed its mind. A spokesman for the teachers union said they would stay at Brooklyn Tech, at least for now. The union members headed into the auditorium.


5:59 p.m. | Updated Protesters converged outside Brooklyn Technical High School Thursday night as the mayoral-controlled Panel for Educational Policy prepared to meet to decide on the fates of 23 public schools.

Members of the United Federation of Teachers gathered on DeKalb Avenue, while Occupy Wall Street protesters clustered on the other side. There appeared to be fewer students than in years past.

Someone projected the words "Fix Our Schools" and "Welcome to the People's PEP" onto Brooklyn Tech's facade.

The teachers' union president, Michael Mulgrew, held an impromptu news conference.

"The entire city is sick and tired of the way the schools are being treated," he said, then chanted, "Enough is enough." Mr. Mulgrew said the city's Department of Education has been failing for a decade -- the length of time that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has had control of the schools.

Mr. Mulgrew said the teachers' union will boycott the PEP meeting and instead move its members and supporters to nearby Public School 20. There, he said, the schools that are slated to be closed or shrunk will truly be able to tell their side of the story.

Various politicians, including city Comptroller John C. Liu, City Councilman Charles Barron, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, State Senator John Sampson and Councilwoman Letitia James are in the crowd.

"The D.O.E. is out of control," Mr. Liu said. "They think progress is closing schools. They need to rethink their overall policy by reinvesting."

Joshua Sol Lewis, a teacher at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, said he wanted to be at the meeting, even though his school has not been recommended for closing. But, he said, some of the schools being closed "have evaluations barely lower than ours. We can be next."


In what has become an annual spectacle, a city board will meet Thursday night to vote on the closing of a number of public schools for poor performance, an event that in the past has drawn hundreds of protesters and vigorous union opposition.

The Panel for Educational Policy, a board that replaced the city's Board of Education, is controlled by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who appoints a majority of its 13 members. In the history of the panel, it has never voted to reject a school closing proposal, a fact that has fueled deep resentment from advocacy groups and the city's teachers' union, who claim the panel is effectively a rubber stamp of the mayor's policies.

On Thursday, at a meeting at Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene, the panel will weigh the fate of 23 schools. City education officials have proposed to close or phase-out 18 of them, and 5 others could have their middle school grades eliminated. The city has also asked the panel to approve the location of 16 new schools that will take the place of those that are closed, as well as the expansion of 4 schools.

In an act of political theater, the teachers' union is holding its own meeting at a nearby public school, where it has invited parents, teachers, and students from the schools that might close to voice opposition to the city's proposals. Union officials are calling the meeting the "People's PEP," and have rented out the auditorium of Public School 20 Clinton Hill, an elementary school a few blocks from Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school teachers and members of Occupy Wall Street are also expected to protest at the meeting.

"There are important proposals up for discussion tonight, and my hope is that we will have a respectful process where people can be heard," the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, said in a statement. "But if all the U.F.T. wants to do is bus in Occupy Wall Street to disrupt public meetings -- which provides absolutely no benefit to students -- then we will just have to work around that. We are prepared to move forward even if there are disruptions."

Officials announced on Wednesday that they would grant a reprieve to two schools that were on the list to be closed. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan, which runs from grades 6 through 12, will keep its middle school grades and get a new principal. And Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy VII in Brooklyn will remain open under its current principal, who arrived in the fall.

“While these two schools continue to struggle, what we learned is that they are also poised to quickly improve,” Mr. Walcott said in a statement.

Since the mayor was granted control of the system in 2002, the city has closed 117 schools, many of them large high schools, and opened numerous small schools in their place. A recent study financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit education research group based in Manhattan, found that students attending small public high schools in the city were more likely to graduate than their counterparts at larger schools.

On Thursday, the panel will decide whether to close four large high schools: Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School and Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers, all in the Bronx, and Washington Irving High School in Manhattan. Last year, 48 percent of seniors at Washington Irving graduated, compared with 35 percent at Grace Dodge. But the schools scheduled to be closed this year also include many that were opened by the Bloomberg administration, some of them to replace failing schools. In 2008, the Education Department opened the General D. Chappie James Elementary School of Science in Brooklyn to replace a closing school. Now, it too is likely to shut down.

Critics of the mayor's education policies have pointed to cases of relatively new schools closing as evidence that the Bloomberg administration is not interested in helping schools turn themselves around. The city has said it provides resources to failing schools but will move to close any schools that are underperforming if there is little chance the school will improve.

On Wednesday, the city received a report from the city's Independent Budget Office suggesting that high schools on the closing list enroll a higher percentage of poor students and those with disabilities or who do not speak English than do high schools throughout the city.

The report also claimed that the schools the city plans to close have more students who arrive already performing below their grade level.

City officials disputed the data and said the Independent Budget Office should have given them more time to respond. In a letter to the budget office's director, Ronnie Lowenstein, the Department of Education counsel, Michael Best, wrote that there were "significant mistakes in the data analysis."

Once the panel votes to close the schools, as history suggests it will, most of them will remain open for several more years, but will not accept new students. As older students graduate and move on, the schools will shrink, losing funding and staff until they finally close.

Only one of the schools, the Academy of Business and Community Development, an all-boys secondary school that opened in 2005, will be shut down at the end of this school year.

Hiten Samtani, Yasmeen Khan and Chris Palmer contributed reporting.

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