Battling for a school’s life

Campaign seeks to save a Hunts Point high school

By Christina Davis

The city Department of Education calls the New School for Arts and Sciences a failure. Teachers, students and administrators disagree. They’re locked in a struggle to save the small high school in Hunts Point, which the Department of Education has slated to shut down completely in 2010.

Nothing hinted at the conflict on a recent visit. Sunlight bathed the brightly- colored walls of the small high school on Longwood Avenue. The school’s teachers painted the walls in pastel colors themselves and adorned them with posters with positive messages, such as “Be Prepared, Be Respectful, Be On Time, and Be Safe.”

Opposite the posters hang collections of student art. A vision statement posted in the entrance boldly proclaims, “We Lift as We Climb!”

Several students had decided to stay after class to continue lessons with their teachers.

Teachers and parents point to these things as signs of success, but the city Department of Education cites an extensive history of failing test scores, low graduation rates, and low levels of promotion as reasons for shutting the school down.

In a phase-out that began last year, the New School now serves only grades 10 through 12. Current students may remain until they graduate, but no new students may enroll. Each year the school will house one less class.

But the school won’t go without a fight. Some of the teachers and administrators have organized a committee to save the New School, staging demonstrations in the school yard after school and pleading their case to Community Board 2.

The school has experienced difficulty since its formation in 1994. It has moved six times and been through four principals (all of whom were novices when they were assigned to the school).

Even with the changes in leadership and location, though, the school has fostered loyalty from its faculty, four of whom have been with the school since its inception, at a time when schools citywide are struggling to keep teachers for more than five years.

Although the Dept. of Education says the school’s performance is substandard, a department evaluation dated November 8-9 2006 grades it proficient. Melody Meyer, an education department spokeswoman, said that while a proficient rating is laudable, the decision to close the school was made before the report was issued and was based on several years of poor performance.

“The only thing that we think can help is a drastic phase-down,” Meyer said, adding that while the school may be improving, “incremental growth for a school that is failing is not enough.”

Many of the New School’s teachers believe that the Department of Education’s assessment of the school failed to take into account the number of students with special needs, who, they say, start high school unprepared to meet standards.

According to the education department’s quality report, one-third of the school’s 350 students require special education services. Educators at the school say they never discourage students from attending the New School based on their disabilities.

Additionally, for 35% of the New School’s students, English is a second language. The New School also harbors many students who have come from schools where they did not feel safe.

Andrea Miller, a history and special education teacher who has been at the New School for 12 years, since its founding, said that the Department of Ed “fails to take into consideration” the school’s large “at-risk population.”

When discussing their school, many students expressed a sense of belonging and safety. “I used to be at another high school and they didn’t care about us at all,” said Class President, Anessa McHish. “I was invisible.” By contrast, she said, at the New School, “All of these teachers were so warm.”

McHish said she also feels safer at the New School because there are so few fights. She attributes the absence of violence to her teachers. “They become like second parents to you,” she said.

Ana Lopez, a foreign language teacher with 15 years of teaching experience, agreed. “In some cases, with the kids in this school, we are their parents,” she said.

McHish, a senior, also said, “I never thought I’d be accepted to college.” Now she hopes to become the first in her family to go to college. She has not decided which of several schools that have accepted her she will attend.

As a result of their positive experiences, she and many of her classmates are working hard to save and improve the New School. McHish has gone to Albany to lobby politicians on the school’s behalf.

Standardized test scores have been improving, parents and teachers say. Ester Newman, a consultant who is helping the school analyze its test data said, “We don’t have a clear reason from the Department of Education as to why they are closing the school.”

The Department of Education would not disclose the specific data or numbers it used in deciding to close the New School, Newman said, adding, “It isn’t possible to address the issues, if you don’t know what the issues are.”

The New School for Arts and Sciences is housed in a former elementary school, which it shares with another high school, Banana Kelly High. Inside, though the building has been carefully decorated, it cannot hide its lack of facilities. It does not have a gymnasium, a working cafeteria, or a chemistry lab.

According to Meyer of the Dept. of Education, when the Holcombe Rucker School, currently housed in portable classrooms at PS 140, near Third Avenue and E. 163 Street, moves into the space vacated by the New School, “The facilities in the building will be upgraded, including renovated cafeteria, science lab, office space-to-classroom conversions, and plumbing repairs in the building.”

Arturo Gonzalez, a Social Studies teacher with10 year experience, thinks the Department of Education isn’t being candid about the reasons behind its decision to close the New School. “They want to close this school because they’re embarrassed of what they’ve done to it,” he charged.

Garland Alston, an animated teacher who claims, “You name it, I teach it,” agrees with Gonzalez that the school has not been given proper resources. He argues, “All we’re asking is for people to give us a chance to do what we do best.”

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