Education / Politics

City will close Banana Kelly HS

by Joe Hirsch

Protesters repeatedly shouted down education officials at an April 26th meeting in Brooklyn on the fate of dozens of city schools, including Banana Kelly.

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This is an updated version of a story first published on the Hunts Point Express website on April 8th. 

The city’s Department of Education will close Banana Kelly High School at the end of the current school semester, reinterview faculty for their jobs, hire new teachers to replace those it chooses not to retain, then reopen the school with a new name in the fall.

At a public hearing in Brooklyn on April 26th, the DOE’s Panel for Educational Policy voted 8-4 in favor of the new “turnaround” model many students and faculty at Banana Kelly dreaded. 

Education officials say the move will address the school’s low graduation rates and poor attendance, both of which they contend are among the city’s lowest. Banana Kelly was among 24 schools across the city the DOE considered for the close-and-reopen model.

Bronx representative Wilfredo Pagan was one of the four panelists who dissented from the majority decision, telling his colleagues on the panel and an angry, vocal public the turnaround model was confusing to parents and students.

“I don’t want to continue to be part of a process that will continue to break down our system,” he explained to the panel, adding, “while we’re doing this, families are just trying to survive and some of them are just giving up.”

Schools chancellor Dennis Wolcott defended the turnaround model, saying “it’s a great opportunity for a school to re-identify itself with a new mission, and a new name.”

Sensing the inevitable but hoping for a different outcome, some 50 students, teachers and union representatives faced off against a DOE official in Banana Kelly’s cafeteria on April 4th, to argue the agency should scrap its proposal at the time.

Students, and teachers and their union argued closing and reopening Banana Kelly unfairly pins the blame for the school’s failures on teachers who have worked tirelessly with tough-to-reach kids from poor communities.

The city 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 told the DOE official at the April 4th 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 argued the new administration, however, 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 an overly limited way of measuring 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 confirmed, 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.

Teachers were unimpressed with the DOE representative’s assurances.

“The community connection we have at this school will die if the staff leaves,” said English teacher Lauren Fardig, who added that resources at the school are being mismanaged, and charter schools that are increasingly replacing the city’s public schools “don’t take difficult students.”

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

Award-winning science teacher Nick Vitale argued 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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