Brownsville Parents and Teachers Rally to Save Their School

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The state’s decision last year to keep Mayor Michael Bloomberg in charge of the city’s public schools means the administration can continue to shake things up. But there was one change. The city now has to hold public hearings whenever it plans to close down a school. As a result, communities are mobilizing to fight the city’s plan to phase out 20 low-performing schools. That’s attracting controversy in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

When they first heard about the plan to close their school, parents and teachers at P.S. 332 wrote to elected officials. Now they’re calling other parents. Nicole Farrell sat in the school’s main office Monday making calls from a list of names.

"I’m calling to let you know that on January 13th we’re having a rally at 4:30 to save our school," she said, leaving a message.

Parent Nicole Farrell at P.S. 332 in Brownsville calling other parents about a rally to save their school.

Farrell has first-grader at the school. Her nineteen-year-old also went here. "I have a lot of friends in the community that also have children that went to this school and they came out on top," she states. "The school does not need to be closed. The stories that are out there are not true."

Farrell is referring to the school’s report cards. For three years in a row the school only earned a C, at a time when most schools saw more improvement. PTA President Reina Foster is a graduate of P.S. 332 and three of her children are current students. She argues that more than half of the students were reading at grade level last year –- a nine-point gain in three years. "Our grades show that we have improved. Are you blaming us for having shelters in our area where the attendance is poor?"

P.S. 332 is located near a bleak industrial park and a couple of homeless shelters. Parents and teachers say those transient families are part of why the school's attendance rate is less than 90 percent. Foster also believes the city wouldn’t be closing P.S. 332 if it didn't plan to open a charter school in the same building. "I just think that the city is trying to take over all public schools and make them into charter schools," she says.

P.S. 332 (right) in Brownsville is surrounded by vacant lots, and is near an industrial park and a few homeless shelters.

That sentiment is common among angry parents at P.S. 332. The Bloomberg administration has opened a total of almost 100 charters, polarizing communities from Central Brooklyn to Harlem. Charters get public money but they’re privately managed. Admission is by random lottery. Preference is given to local students but there are no guarantees. As a result, critics say charters are less inclusive than regular public schools.

The city vigorously denies those allegations. And parents who want charters say the schools offer more than regular schools. Nereida Torres sends her daughter to a charter school in East New York. "I understand their concerns," she says of the parents at P.S. 332 nearby. "Not wanting a charter school in and thinking that maybe the school just needs extra help. But in reality the charter schools are the extra help."

Deputy Chancellor John White says charters are reinventing the education options in low-income communities. And for those who think P.S. 332 is improving, White says the school didn’t make the cut –- even when accounting for homeless students. "When you compare this school with schools across the city with students with similar challenges, this school is in the bottom 2 to 3 percent of schools in the city," he says.

The Department of Education is proposing to phase out P.S. 332 while gradually opening two new schools in the same building. One would be a regular elementary school and the other a charter for middle-school students.

Teachers have joined the effort to save all 20 of the schools the city plans to close. In the main office of P.S. 332, three teachers, three parents, and a volunteer from ACORN are making calls about tonight’s public hearing on the fate of the school. Charters are an obvious threat to teachers because they don’t have to hire unionized workers. Last year, the union sued to prevent the city from closing another school in Brownsville in order to make more room for charters. Science teacher Vanecia Wilson acknowledges she and her colleagues don’t want to lose their jobs. But she says the fight is about preserving more than a school.

"This is our home," says Wilson. "We look at this as our home. It is a community within itself. There are people who have taught here over 20 years. I can’t even imagine not coming to work here."

Teacher Vanecia Wilson and PTA President Reina Foster believe the city is only trying to close PS 332 to make way for a charter school.

The fact that parents and teachers here don’t want an alternative is a sign that the city hasn’t yet made its case for change. On January 26, the Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the plan to close all 20 schools. The panel’s appointees are controlled by the mayor.

View a map of city schools to be phased out in September.