while you were sleeping

Bronx transfer school is shuttered after late-night vote, a first for Chancellor Carranza

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Supporters of Crotona Academy protested against the city's plans to close it at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Chancellor Richard Carranza’s introduction to New York City continued Wednesday with an eight hour meeting in which teachers and students desperately pled for their school not to be closed, only to have the city school board vote to shutter it.

Even after hearing a musical performance from students hoping to keep Crotona Academy open, the Panel for Educational Policy voted around 1 a.m. Thursday to shutter the Bronx high school that serves students who have struggled at traditional high schools.


Some of the school’s supporters appealed directly to Carranza, arguing that he should reconsider proposals created under his predecessor, Carmen Fariña.

“You see how many people are here right now — people want this school open,” said Dallas Joseph, a 17-year-old student at the school. He noted that the school offers lots of individualized attention and set him up with a job at an after-school program. “They gave us a different type of opportunity.”

It’s an argument that supporters of the city’s “transfer” high schools, which serve students who have fallen behind in credits at traditional schools and are likely to be at risk of dropping out, have long made when the city has called attention to their low performance. Advocates for the schools have long pointed out that looking at graduation rates and test scores is not the best way to assess their value, and in the past, city officials have withdrawn closure proposals for transfer schools that they said were doing better than performance data suggested.

Indeed, Crotona’s supporters said traditional statistics mask the school’s successes. Former students said the school helped them get to graduation despite falling behind at other high schools. And staffers pointed out the school serves an unusually vulnerable population.

“Our population is among the most at-risk in the city,” said Nicholas Rivera, a staff member at the school.

Their argument did not fly overnight. City officials said Crotona is too low-performing to stay open and that other transfer schools in the Bronx have enough space to absorb its students. The school’s 45 percent graduation rate puts it among the bottom third of all transfer schools, according to education department documents, and just 1 percent of the students who graduated last school year were considered “college-ready.”

“We take the decision to close a school extremely seriously, and we only propose closure when it’s in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “The students at Crotona Academy can be better served by one of the stronger transfer schools in the Bronx.”

Carranza did not comment as the panel debated the proposal or another contentious one to merge two other Bronx transfer schools: Bedford Stuyvesant Preparatory High School and Brooklyn Academy High School. Nor did he comment on the decisions after they were made around 1 a.m.

The final vote on both proposals was 7-5, with mayoral appointees voting in favor, and all five borough representatives voting no. (While Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would let his appointees vote as they wished, he recently replaced a mayoral appointee who voted against a city proposal.)

The panel also voted to merge six other schools — a process that some school communities often experience as de facto closures.

  • Holcombe L. Rucker and Longwood Preparatory Academy, both part of the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program for low-performing schools.
  • Middle School of Marketing and Legal Studies and East Flatbush Community Research School, in Brooklyn
  • Aspirations Diploma Plus High School and W.E.B. Dubois Academic High School, also transfer schools, in Brooklyn

sorting the students

Facing closure, some Memphis parents hope to form K-8 school, but others aren’t sold

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A community group proposed combining Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle School, but elementary parents aren't convinced.

About 35 frustrated parents and teachers from Manor Lake Elementary School made it clear to district officials in a recent meeting that they don’t want their school merged with a nearby middle school.

The reaction from Manor Lake parents dashed hopes that a proposal from other parents to combine the school with Geeter Middle School would gain support.

The parents who made the proposal are part of a larger leadership group representing the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, which both schools will enter next year. Also in that group are students, teachers, and community leaders who represent a cluster of low-performing neighborhood schools.

Shelby County Schools officials had hoped that a proposal generated by parents would help win support from other parents in the neighborhood because parents rarely support closing a school.

Some of the parents at Manor Lake told district officials they fear the influence of older students if their school is combined with Geeter.

The district hopes that if the schools in that zone work together, test scores will improve. Parent and community leaders said the consolidation would stave off closure by the district, which would scatter students to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood.

District leaders saw the move as a way to avoid state takeover by combining resources into one building, allowing them to direct more money to improving academic performance. Both Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle feed into Fairley High School, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addresses Manor Lake Elementary parents.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the ASD,” said Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone.

Manor Lake teacher Lisa Chalmers said even though the proposal would allow students to stick together, she was worried about the blight of another empty building in an area that has experienced many school closures in recent years.

“I know they [the state] want our schools. But we want our schools too,” she said.

District leaders described the school’s declining test scores, poor building condition, and low enrollment as other reasons for combining the schools, which are both at risk of closure. Teachers in the audience attributed the lack of academic growth to adding students from at least two schools that had been closed in recent years.

Either way, the schools will face disruption going into next school year. As part of entering the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone next year, all teachers at both schools will have to re-apply to their positions — a common practice among turnaround programs.

The meeting last week was the second convened by district leaders after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the proposal to the school board last month. Parents said the proposal came as a surprise and that they didn’t know about the first meeting held soon after Hopson’s announcement.

Proponents of combining elementary and middle grades say if students change schools fewer times between kindergarten and 12th grade, they perform better on tests. But studies on the topic are mixed. A 2011 University of Minnesota review of relevant studies said more research is needed to be definitive.

Sherrie Jackson, who despite not living in Manor Lake’s boundary chose the school for her two children, called the idea “ludicrous” because she didn’t want her rising kindergartner to be in the same building as eighth graders.

“What if one of these small children get hurt with those big kids over there?” she asked. “The more kids you have in the school, the less one-on-one time they get.”

Hunter said elementary and middle school students would be on separate floors of the building, a similar set up to the district’s 13 other K-8 schools.

“The only thing that’s going to make you feel totally better is when you see it and live it,” he told Jackson during the meeting. Still, Jackson and others said they would take their students elsewhere if the district goes through with the proposal.

“I’m just going to have to look around, probably transfer her, see where I can find a school for her to go to that’s K through fifth grade,” said Kimeri Golden, whose daughter is a third-grader at Manor Lake, after the meeting.

The school board is scheduled to give its final vote on the proposal at its regular meeting in April.

School Closings

Ahead of school closure vote, New York City families protest and anxiously await new options

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
P.S. 92 parent Jeanelle Valet protested that school's closure at recent rally in front of the education department's headquarters.

When Jeanelle Valet learned that the city planned to close P.S. 92, the Bronx elementary school her three children attend, she struggled to understand why.

She knew the school had a history of low performance, but it seemed to be working for her children. And it didn’t take much research to find other schools with lower attendance rates and similar test scores that avoided a spot on the closure list.

“I have gone through a lot of data for all these other schools,” Valet boomed through a megaphone as she stood on the steps of the education department’s headquarters, where advocates and parents gathered this week in protest. “There are other schools on the ‘Renewal’ list that aren’t getting closed that should be closed.”

On Wednesday, an oversight panel will vote on the city’s plans to shutter 13 schools — including P.S. 92 and seven others in the city’s “Renewal” improvement program — that officials decided are too low performing or have shed too many students to keep open. It’s the largest single round of closures since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014.

School closures are inherently disruptive and controversial — even schools with dismal academic records can inspire fierce loyalty from families and educators. The outcry against closures was loud and sustained under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who shut down dozens of low-performing schools and replaced them with new ones.

De Blasio has weathered a much smaller backlash because he has shuttered far fewer schools and on account of his $582 million Renewal program, which has flooded low-performing schools with extra social services and academic support rather than immediately closing them. Yet his approach has invited its own set of critiques.

The fact that de Blasio promised to “move heaven and earth” through his Renewal program to revamp troubled schools has prompted even some allies to question whether the program has fallen short. And the small number of closures has left parents like Valet wondering why their school was targeted when others were spared, and has fueled suspicions among some that de Blasio may be making space for more charter schools. (An education department spokesman denied that and said only four of 18 schools set to be closed or merged will be replaced by charter schools.)

Now, even as families at some of the schools rally against the closures, they are also wondering where their children will end up if the plans go through. While the city has promised to place them in higher-performing alternatives, many are skeptical — and still waiting for details.

“No one has told us anything,” Valet said.

The Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — will vote on the closures Wednesday evening. In the past, it has signed off on nearly all of the city’s proposed closures, though five of the 13 members voted against shuttering a Bronx middle school last year. If the latest round of closures are approved, 26 of the original 94 Renewal schools will have been closed or merged with other schools.

Since launching the Renewal program in 2014, de Blasio has made clear that he would consider shutting down schools that failed to make “fast and intense” improvements after receiving extra support. Still, that has not insulated him from attacks from all sides: Critics of his approach say he should have closed the worst-off schools sooner rather than spending years trying to save them, while some ideological allies question his decision to close any schools at all.

“This administration, like its predecessor, relies too frequently on school closings as a remedy for failing schools,” Public Advocate Letitia James wrote in a recent letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “Rather than helping students, closures disrupt whole communities.”

Even the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education — which has generally endorsed de Blasio’s turnaround strategy — implied in a statement last week that the city was partly to blame for some schools’ failure to improve, saying that the Renewal program’s support for schools has been “uneven.”

The group also argued that the education department “arbitrarily” targeted schools for closure — echoing a complaint made by many families and faculty members.

For instance, supporters of P.S./M.S. 42 in Queens have pointed out that the school has made gains on its test scores and quality reviews — even outperforming a number of other Renewal schools. Yet it is one of the schools slated for closure.

In the past, education department officials have said they consider a range of factors when deciding which schools to close.

“We look carefully at a school’s test scores, attendance, graduation rates, classroom instruction, leadership and the school’s overall trajectory for success,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement. “For each school proposed for closure, we believe that students will be better served at a higher performing school.”

But critics say it’s often unclear how those criteria are applied to individual schools.

“There’s a lack of clarity, a randomness, in how schools are closed,” said Angelica Otero, executive director at Bronx Power, an organization that has organized parents against the closures. “That’s what feels really unfair.”

Adding to the frustration, de Blasio recently reversed his administration’s decision to close a Brooklyn high school. Because he cited community pressure, the reversal raised questions about whether politics play a role in closure decisions — while also giving other schools hope that protests might change the mayor’s mind.

“We were like, ‘Okay, it’s possible,’” Otero said when Brooklyn Collegiate was taken off the closure list. “Let’s keep working.” (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said the city reversed the planned closure after the community raised concerns about “limited high school options in Brownsville.”)

While families fight the closures, they are also worried about what will happen if they lose. City officials have promised to help students in the closing schools enroll in ones that are better performing. However, a Chalkbeat analysis found that students leaving closed schools often attend others that still perform below the city average.

Meanwhile, several parents said they are anxiously awaiting the individual enrollment help that city officials say is coming in early March after the closure plans are formally approved. For now, many parents like Magdalana Espinosa, who has children at two different Renewal schools slated for closure, do not know where their children are headed after their schools shut down.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to put my kids,” she said.