Students and parents rally behind beleaguered principal
Booing city officials, residents defended the principal of the largest high school in the Hunts Point/Longwood community and denounced Department of Education plans for a major makeover of Banana Kelly High School at a forum on the school’s future.
Branded a failure by the education department, Banana Kelly must be revamped, Bronx Schools superintendent Elena Papaliberios told a boisterous crowd of well over a hundred students, parents, education activists and Banana Kelly faculty and staff at the forum in late March.
“Here we’re looking at a school that’s struggling with its graduation rate,” Papaliberios said. “It’s not something the state wants, it’s not something the city wants,” she continued.
But the crowd frequently hooted and hollered at Papaliberios, insisting they should have a say in charting the school’s future. Dozens lined up at the microphone in the school cafeteria to tell Papaliberios and other education department officials that Banana Kelly is a school perfectly suited for the South Bronx, taking in underperforming students who are unwanted at other schools and helping them improve their grades.
The city has the option of closing the school, as it did four years ago with the New School for Arts and Science, housed in the same building on Longwood Avenue, but Papaliberios assured the crowd that that would not happen.
Instead, Principal Joshua Laub, who has guided the school since 1999, is likely to be replaced under guidelines that determine what happens to schools that are labeled “persistently low achieving.”
A meeting between members of Banana Kelly’s administration and DOE officials is scheduled for early May to begin deciding the school’s fate.
Parents praised Laub and the dedication of the school’s staff, whose members also face the possibility that they will be shifted elsewhere.
One parent said her son had done poorly in another school, but Banana Kelly’s “staff sat with him weekends so he could pass the Regents.”
Another parent with a child in 11th grade, said teachers regularly stay after school to help students bring their grades up.
“Lunchtime, after school, teachers are there—it’s not going to happen in a lot of other schools,” said Allison Rivera, who heads the PTA. “It scares me to think of what could happen. Some of these models that they’re talking about, we don’t know what’s inside it.”
Almost all the students and community members expressed their loyalty to Laub’s leadership.
“It’s all about the students and how we progress,” said one student, adding, “We’ll be the ones hurt.”
Some residents felt deceived by the way the city informs the public about its decision-making process.
“Ms. Papaliberios, I feel lied to,” wrote Longwood resident Damian Griffin in a letter to the superintendent days after the meeting. “I feel that I was invited to what was perceived as the beginning of a dialogue only to be told that the real discussion was over.”
One school reform expert who spoke at the forum says the city has the discretion to weigh criteria differently for each individual school, but lacks either the capacity or the willingness to do so.
“Give the school a chance to do its magic over six years rather than four years,” said Norm Fruchter of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, explaining that Banana Kelly’s graduation rates have plummeted since 2007 when it began taking increasing numbers of students from other schools with low grades.
Measuring the school’s graduation rates over six years rather than four would force officials to look at 2005-2006 performance rates, before the city began sending students who were unwanted elsewhere to Banana Kelly, he said.
Enrollment at the school climbed 60% between 2006 and 2009, from 291 students to 465 students, of whom about a quarter are deemed “special needs” students. There are three special education teachers on staff for those students.
Ultimately, Fruchter says, the department of education’s rigidity will hurt the community.
“This is another instance where an inflexible guideline has damned the school when it shouldn’t,” he said in a post-meeting interview.
Ian Amritt, executive director of UNITAS, a Hunts Point based non-profit that trains teachers and students to counsel other students disagreed, saying the school’s administrators should have fought the policy of transferring at-risk students to Banana Kelly.
But, Amritt added, the education department may be asking too much from schools like Banana Kelly.
“The city sends students with drug use and behavior problems without proper crisis intervention training for staff,” he said.
Speaking about students no one else wanted, Laub said, “If we don’t take someone, no one will.”
Still, the embattled principal reflected, he “could have been more selective about who was accepted.”
“I’ve really struggled on how do we prepare kids for college, how to get them through the test,” he said.
After the city officials had left the late March meeting, a gaunt and visibly fatigued Laub told his supporters in the still-filled cafeteria, “I would like to stay,” to another round of applause.