Phasing out a dream

February 21, 2013

Parents, students and teachers from a New York City high school turned out to speak at a hearing on school closings. Teacher Kristin Taylor reports on what they had to say.

NEW YORK City students, parents, teachers and community members gathered on February 13 at a public hearing in the auditorium of the Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School to voice their opposition to plans to shutter the school.

In early January, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) released its list of schools slated for closure due to "poor performance," adding 17 potential closures to the more than 140 schools that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has closed since he took office in 2002.

Bread and Roses is threatened with "phase-out," which means that it would no longer admit new ninth-grade students until its last class graduates, at which point it would close.

According to Parent Association President Aimee Hernandez, the scene at the hearing was a familiar one. As she gathered signatures on a petition to keep the school open, she explained that this was the fourth such hearing the school had gone through in three years. "First we were a 'transformation' school, then a 'restart' school, then a 'turnaround' school. I don't know how many people are going to show up tonight. We're tired of all this."

Teachers speak out against the proposed phaseout of Bread and Roses High School
Teachers speak out against the proposed phaseout of Bread and Roses High School

A group of students held homemade signs that read, "Support Schools! Don't Close Them!" and "Closing Schools is NOT the Solution." About a dozen teachers, armed with written statements from students to read during public commentary, encouraged students to sign up to speak for themselves. "Are you going to speak, Justin?" one asked. "You have such a powerful voice."

Most of the teachers present were in their first year at Bread and Roses, as over half of the staff had been replaced at the beginning of the school year. A number of them were part of the New York Teaching Residency, a DOE initiative designed to staff underperforming schools with new recruits who are expected to "turn around" a school's performance.

A few of these teachers expressed frustration with the fact that they had just begun their work, and yet the school was already labeled a failure by the very system that had recruited them to change things.

Living environment teacher Pooja Bhaska spoke on the panel on behalf of the School Leader Team. She identified curricular and instructional resources that were promised to the school during its "restart," none of which materialized. She questioned why the superintendent had not once visited the school the previous year.

"The message that this sends to our students is that the problems are not worth fixing," she said. "When my students are struggling I don't stand over them and yell, 'Learn better!' We scaffold and support them."

Panel member and teacher Andrea Wilson repeatedly asked one pointed question of Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson: "How would closing Bread and Roses help our students?"

"You have hit us with all kinds of numbers that seem to indicate that Bread and Roses is failing our students," Wilson said. "You've referenced attendance data, test scores and graduation rates, but your own statistics show that the phase-out model doesn't benefit students."

She cited the DOE data on the 21 schools that were closed between 2002 and 2009, noting that the graduation rate in those schools remained below that of Bread and Roses High School. In 2009, most students who were transferred out of closing schools were re-enrolled in low-performing schools. "So I ask you again," Wilson said. "How will closing Bread and Roses help our students?"

Deputy Chancellor Gibson replied, "There is no easy answer to that question."

DURING PUBLIC commentary at the hearing, two students who had not signed the speakers' list decided that they wanted to say something. After an absent speaker had been called several times, they got up to take her place. Facilitator Laura Feijoo insisted that they couldn't speak. "This is a public hearing," she said. "There are rules." The audience became angry, shouting "Let them speak!"

Politely but firmly, one of the students took hold of the moment and the mic, "Ms., please. Ms., it's okay. Just listen," he said. "When I came here, I didn't take school seriously. I was in and out of jail. But my whole perception of life has changed. The teachers stayed after school with me. Thanks to my teachers, I'm graduating." He sat down to applause.

Senior Kamel Montgomery also spoke. "If they close the school, it's going to be hard for kids to settle down again. We just formed relationships with these new teachers. I know the school has been an 'F' for a minute, but it's our school in our community. Things have been getting better."

Brian Jones, speaking for the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a newly formed social justice caucus in the United Federation of Teachers, accused the DOE of setting schools up to fail with its infamous school report cards. He said:

The DOE has predetermined that a certain percentage of schools will receive Cs, Ds and Fs before the school year even begins. If I, as a teacher, said that a certain percentage of my students would fail before I even began teaching, I would be run out, and rightly so.

Jackie Rowe-Adams, founder of Harlem Mothers Save and former member of Community School Board #5, called out the hearing as a sham:

When I told people I was coming here tonight, they said, "Jackie, why waste your time? It's a done deal." This is a design, and the people know it. But this is not a done deal! This room should be packed, and we should be marching in the streets. We need to say stop closing the schools. Enough is enough!

One student looked at the bigger picture in talking to a teacher who had come to the hearing in solidarity:

I live in the projects. What I see is people who didn't go to college--no diplomas. I think a leader could change that. My goal is to become somebody, get some money, and come back and help my community. I'm talking about from when they're babies, giving them programs from the time they're three years old, keep them off the streets and in school. They need help. We can't do it by ourselves.

The motto of Bread and Roses High School, which was prominently displayed during the hearing on a cloth covering the panel's table, is "Believe in the Power of Our Dreams." The students, parents and educators at the school clearly take that motto to heart.

The phase-out of Bread and Roses High School will be voted on by Bloomberg's handpicked Panel for Educational Policy on March 11 at Brooklyn Technical High School.

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