Banana Kelly students, teachers clash with DOE

Banana Kelly HS could see a drastic turnover of teachers next fall, if the city goes ahead with its "turnaround" plan for the Longwood school.

DOE official defends city's position to close high school

Some 50 students, teachers and union representatives faced off against an official from the city’s Department of Education in the cafeteria of Banana Kelly High School on April 4th, to argue the education department should scrap its proposal to close the school and reopen it with a new name. 

The Department of Education says Banana Kelly has failed, and should be reopened with a new name and staff. Faculty members who currently teach at the high school on Longwood Avenue would have to reapply for their jobs, and if chosen after interviews would be joined by new teachers in an effort to address the school’s low graduation rates and poor attendance. In all, 33 schools across the city are being considered for reorganization under the education department’s “turnaround” model.

Students, and teachers and their union argue the proposal unfairly pins the blame for failures on teachers who work with hard-to-reach kids from poor communities.

The city agency’s Panel on Educational Policy will announce whether it will go ahead with the proposal at a public hearing in Brooklyn on April 26th, although many think the department has already made its decison behind closed doors.

The education department threatened to close Banana Kelly at the end of the 2011 school year, but later opted not to, instead replacing the school’s long-time principal and other staff last fall.

“I don’t understand why this is happening,” junior Osiris Zavala said at the meeting. “You’re blaming the teachers. It’s not fair to the students who are actually trying.”

“It’s a shame. We have no control over our school,” she said.

Junior Edward Bonner said he was a lost, confused kid when he enrolled at Banana Kelly, but teachers have helped him grow up. Bonner added, though, that the new administration is obsessed with preparing students for the Regents exam, to students’ detriment.

“My first year here, I didn’t want to be here, I just wanted to stay home,” Bonner said. “To think you would change the whole staff and the students would fall in line—how, how do you know that?” he asked angrily, adding that learning to memorize in order to “pass the stupid test” is a flawed and limited way to measure students’ abilities.

Shael Suransky, the Senior Deputy Schools Chancellor, told the angry group that the change is necessary to improve education at Banana Kelly, and the name-change would help symbolize the school’s new identity and direction. The school’s 77 percent attendance rate and its 55 percent graduation rate are among the city’s lowest, he said.

“Those were the voices that were not heard tonight,” Suransky, a former principal at Bronx International High School in Morrisania, told the plan’s detractors. “We do not want to see so many kids lost along the way.”

“The point of this proposal is to strengthen what’s going on here,” he said.

Suransky said reports the school must replace half of its teachers in order to qualify for $800,000 in federal funding are inaccurate. Teachers will be reinterviewed, he said, but there is no formula dictating how many will be retained or replaced, and, he added, “There will be many elements of Banana Kelly incorporated into the new school.” Principal Antonio Arocho, who was named to run the school last fall, will stay on.

Suransky tried to calm nervous teachers and union representatives, telling them teachers who are not rehired will not be laid off, but instead will be shifted to classrooms elsewhere, as regular teachers or as substitutes.

But the teachers were unimpressed.

“The community connection we have at this school will die if the staff leaves,” said English teacher Lauren Fardig, who added that charter schools, which compete with the city’s regular public schools “don’t take difficult students,” leaving a higher proportion of hard-to-teach students for schools like Banana Kelly.

“When will the DOE truly look to meet the needs of these underserved students?” she asked.

Award-winning science teacher Nick Vitale argued that the city’s frequent changes have gradually broken teachers’ and students’ spirits during his 12-year stint at Banana Kelly.

“It seems every decision that’s been made has been made by people who don’t know the school,” he said. “Every decision has made it harder to work here.”

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