Residents rally against school merger

Anna Brooks

Students and educators rally at City Hall on Feb. 27.

Hillary Cacho should be thinking about her high school graduation next year. But since the city’s recent proposal to merge her high school, Holcombe L. Rucker, with another local school, Longwood Preparatory Academy, Cacho doesn’t even know which school she’ll be graduating from.

Holcombe Rucker is one of 78 schools in the Renewal School Program, an initiative the city’s education department implemented three years ago to support low-performing schools in danger of being closed or consolidated this year because of poor attendance and test scores. 

On Feb. 1, the education department announced a proposal to consolidate Holcombe Rucker and Longwood Prep., which are both located in a building next to Bill Rainey Park on Longwood Avenue, and put a Success Academy Charter School in the building.

“I don’t want to graduate with a diploma from a school I didn’t want to go to,” said Cacho, a junior at Holcombe Rucker, at a protest she helped organize on the steps of City Hall on Feb. 21. “They’re also contradicting what they’re trying to say by merging us and putting a charter school in.”

Longwood Preparatory, which is preparing to absorb Holcombe Rucker for the 2018-19 school year, briefly closed in 2012, due to low graduation rates and poor attendance. Known then as Banana Kelly High School, the school reopened that same year under its new name.

Despite extra funding provided through the Renewal School Program, which the city has invested upwards of $580 million into over the past three years, Longwood Preparatory was yet again on the chopping block this year because of low enrollment, as was Holcombe Rucker. With 172 students enrolled at Longwood Preparatory and 153 at Holcombe Rucker, Longwood won out by just 19 students, in the city’s decision of who should absorb who.

The education department’s proposal states that consolidation will “serve students more effectively and distribute resources more evenly,” but teachers like Wendy Nathaniel, who has taught English to sophomores and juniors at Holcombe Rucker for the past 12 years, thinks otherwise.

“We’ve been told a merger is different than a closure because students and teachers will have a school to go to,” she said. “However, Rucker will be no more. Where do our public schools go? They’re relocated permanently, and they’re forgotten.”

Nathaniel added that the department’s concurrent proposal to co-locate Success Academy into the building speaks to a growing trend of public schools in the Bronx being pushed out by charter schools.

Last year, the city closed J.H.S. 145 Arturo Toscanini on Teller Avenue in Morrisania due to poor performance and brought a new charter school, Success Academy Bronx 3 Middle School, to the building.

A longtime staff member at Longwood Preparatory, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the DOE, said he understands the rationale behind the merger because the building is underutilized, but empathizes with the community’s reaction to the charter school co-location.

“No one is against Success Academy per say, we’re just against the larger implications of its impact on the community,” he said. “There’s a fear of gentrification in this community. This community has been underserved, is feeling hurt and betrayed, and anything you hear about Success Academy has the connotations of gentrification.”

Rick Sherman, former chair of Bronx Community Board 2’s Education Committee, said that although he’s in favor of the city’s proposal to merge the two under-enrolled schools, a move he said would be in the students’ best interest, he opposes the co-location of a charter school. Not only will schools be competing for space, he said, charter schools are often backed by foundations and can afford equipment public schools can’t, which could disincentivize public school students.

“I’m for one administration,” Sherman said. “I’m for kids knowing their school building, encouraging school spirit and really building a community school. If they can’t have a building of their own, most charter schools will try to co-locate, and I think that’s a horrible thing. It’s just not a good school environment.”

But Board 2’s current Education Committee chair, Cedric McClester, disagreed with his colleague. Success Academy has “worked out marvelously” in other instances where the charter network has co-located into public school buildings, he said, and “has always filled empty spaces,” rather than taking away classroom seats from public school children. In time the community will be happy,” he predicted, adding that his own granddaughter is doing well as a student in a Success elementary school.

The merger is still in the proposal phase, yet Fabyan Roldan, who helps with community outreach and coordinating resources at Holcombe Rucker, said the decision has already been made. The Success Academy Charter Schools’ website notes that fifth grade students at SA Bronx 3 MS (formerly known as J.H.S. 145 Arturo Toscanini) “will relocate to 965 Longwood Avenue for the 2018-19 school year.”

“This is already planned,” Roldan said. “Before the vote has even happened, they’ve already planned for Success Academy to come into the building.”

According to the education department, there are 455 students enrolled in the schools inside the BX039 building, just 42% of the DOE’s goal of 1,075 student capacity. The DOE anticipates that after the merger and the co-location, the building will have between 680 and 760 students by next year, then will reach its full capacity, between 1,065 and 1,165, by 2021-22.

The Panel for Education Policy will vote on the proposal on March 21 at 6 p.m. at the High School for Fashion Industries, at 225 W. 24th Street in Manhattan.

This story was updated on March 7.

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