Beach Channel UFT chapter leader David Pecorado spoke against the Department of Education's plan to close the high school.
Beach Channel UFT chapter leader David Pecoraro spoke against the Department of Education’s plan to close the high school, as parents, alumni and other teachers waited behind him to speak.

Parents, students, teachers and alumni of Beach Channel High School asked Department of Education officials last night not to close their school, arguing the phase-out would be arbitrary, unnecessary and devastating for the Rockaway Park community.

The crowd that turned out to Beach Channel’s auditorium for the public hearing on the DOE’s plan to shutter the school wasn’t huge, but it was energized. Audience members jeered at DOE officials, including Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, and speakers frequently ignored officials’ requests to limit their speeches to two minutes.

When senior Chris Petrillo approached the front of the auditorium, asking to give a presentation originally intended for Chancellor Joel Klein, Grimm initially asked him to wait until after a group of elected officials commented on the proposal. A chant grew in the audience: “Let the student speak.” Grimm ceded the floor.

Petrillo, who spent the evening of his 18th birthday at the meeting, proceeded to present a slide-show of reasons not to close the school, questions about the closure and photos depicting programs cut from the school during his time there.

“Why can’t the money being used to open up a new school be used to fix us?” Petrillo asked.

The public hearing format did not give Grimm the opportunity to respond to questions, though Debra Kurshan and Samuel Sloves of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Planning listened from the sidelines, taking notes.

Education officials say Beach Channel, one of 20 schools marked for closure this year, has consistently demonstrated it cannot improve student performance. The DOE cites an approximately 11 percent drop in enrollment from last year to this year. Officials point to figures in last year’s survey of students, parents and teachers, which they say demonstrate students and parents do not believe the school is safe.

But teachers countered that recent department reports that gauged Beach Channel’s quality gave the school passing marks and praised it for improvement. The DOE’s proposal for closing Beach Channel acknowledges that the school’s scores on department evaluations do not meet its usual criteria for closure.

Supporters of the school also argued that the DOE set the school up to fail by both cutting the school’s funding and flooding the school with high-needs students as nearby Far Rockaway High School phased out.

Beach Channel senior Chris Petrillo asks Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (center, red suit) not to close his school.
Beach Channel senior Chris Petrillo asks Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (center, red suit) not to close his school.

Current and former parents also said that because the DOE does not plan to replace Beach Channel’s lost high school seats with seats in the neighborhood, a large number of students will be forced to leave the Rockaway peninsula and travel long distances to school.

The DOE’s proposal says that seats lost by the phase-out of Beach Channel will be replaced in new schools opening around the city. Just one of those new schools, a small school eventually serving a projected 400-500 students when fully built, is proposed for Rockaway. Beach Channel currently enrolls more than 1,300 students. The closest large high schools to Beach Channel are John Adams High School in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill High School. (From Beach Channel, online mapping services estimate that it’s a fifteen to twenty minutes drive to those schools, or forty minutes to an hour on public transit.)

Speakers said that travel would create too large a time and financial burden for many families to bear, especially if an MTA plan to cut free student transit passes goes through.

Furthermore, Beach Channel supporters said, the closest high schools are already packed with students and would struggle to absorb students from Rockaway. Both John Adams and Richmond Hill are listed at over 100 percent capacity according to the DOE’s most recent space use estimates.

City Councilman Eric Ulrich, one of several elected officials who attended or sent representatives to speak against the plan, said the DOE was “creating a disaster of Biblical proportions” for the neighborhood.