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Students Protest DOE’s Secret Decisions about Struggling Schools

April 26, 2011

Close to one hundred high school students from the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC), New York City’s largest student-led group, gathered on the steps of the Department of Education headquarters today to protest the City’s secretive selection process for choosing which schools get precious transformation funds from the federal government, likely to determine which schools close and which flourish.

UYC students are concerned that lack of public input and oversight will lead to more federal money left on the table, as last year the DOE foolishly failed to apply for more than $10 million that could have saved up to half-a-dozen high schools citywide—many of which were closed instead.

Thirty-four struggling New York City high schools qualified as federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools last year—eligible for up to $2 million a year apiece for up to three years.  The City is allowed to apply for up to 50 percent of its SIG schools to receive funds through the program, yet applied for only 11 to receive grants, instead of the 17 eligible.  In addition, the City hasn’t met its obligations under the program to support the 11 transformation schools from last year after receiving more than $20 million from the U.S. government.  The DOE took $6 million in SIG money to set up a School Turnaround Office, for instance, but it had not been staffed as of last month.  It also hasn’t hired the required personnel at schools to implement transformation plans.

If the DOE doesn’t apply for the 2011 SIG money by this Saturday, April 30th, it will pass up the opportunity for tens of millions in additional federal dollars to improve schools, at a time when the city faces devastating budget cuts.

Below are the student’s testimonies:

German Flores, 17 years old, Franklin K. Lane High School

I entered Franklin K Lane High School because of its size and its idea of the Small Learning Communities. From cooking class to Film class, Lane was one of the few schools with such a range of options. Entering as a freshman, in fall 2007, I was promised so much and yet received so little.

“The DOE is planning to phase out Lane by 2011,” my principal said when I was a sophomore. We students didn’t believe it, but this became a reality. Many of the young teachers left, regardless of their skills in teaching. Most of them were really good teachers.  Lane started to become a ghost town.

Programs were being cut all over the place.  That French class I was promised to take in my sophomore year? Cut. My only option for foreign language at Lane became Spanish, so I ended up studying a language that I already knew at home.  My film class—something that drew me to Lane in the first place—also cut.

Also, fitting two thousand students into three floors was not easy. And fitting four schools on the top floor was over crowded. Students were constantly late to class due to crowded hallways.  Students would literally bump into each other, which in some cases escalated into fights. Lane students were banned from the floors that held the new schools.  Students were becoming territorial and fought to claim hallway spaces. That was dangerous to students as well as staff.

As the new schools began to expand, Lane began to size down or in other words “phase out”. The newer schools got new resources and Lane was left with the old ones. “This US History book doesn’t even have Bill Clinton listed as a president!”- observed my sister. Students were left standing in certain classes–47 students in one class to be exact. Now in its last year, Lane has shrunk to just one and a half floors which hold about 400 students.  Less than half of those students aren’t walking down the aisle to graduate this June.

This shouldn’t be anyone’s high school experience. Closing schools sacrifices the students who currently attend those schools.  The DOE should stop the process of closing schools and of leaving students out of decisions about their schools.

Sony Cabral, 15 years old, Samuel Gompers High School

My name is Sony Cabral and I’m here representing UYC and my school Samuel Gompers High School.  Closing schools is not a wise political move. Closing my school is just not right. Yes, we acknowledge that Gompers is on the PLA list for reasons. The community around my school sure isn’t the best neighborhood and the school environment inside the school isn’t that great.

But the solution should not be to close my school.  Why hasn’t the DOE taken the initiative in helping us so we can improve? The students and staff can’t change and turn our school around by ourselves, and without any support or funding!  Many of us are well aware of the fact that schools on the PLA list are soon transitioning into intervention models like Turnaround, Restart, Transformation, or Closure. If the DOE is really worried about these low performing schools then why don’t they pitch in and help us?

Why sit back and make decisions behind closed doors, without the people most impacted by the decisions there at the table? I also worry that they will close Gompers and put a charter school inside the building.   We have nothing against charter schools but when a public school is closed and they replace it with a charter school then that’s a different story.  Privatizing our education in order to save some money is wrong. The DOE should start collaborating with the student body in order to make positive changes in our schools. The student body should also have the right to voice their opinions and be heard!

Ubayed Muhith, 18 years old, Lehman High School

Lehman High School has long been regarded as one of the best remaining large high schools in the city. A wide menu of courses and programs, warm and safe atmosphere, as well as inspirational teachers made this the best school there can ever be. But recently in the last few years the school has suffered a severe decline because of the policies enacted by the DOE. In the past few years, other large schools in the Bronx were being phased out, and because of that, hundreds of kids who were denied seats in small schools had no other place to go to but Lehman, leading to an increase in population. 4000 kids enter through the doors of Lehman every day (well above capacity), and among them 20 percent are classified as ELL or students with special needs, and this has been difficult for the school to handle as its funds are continually slashed.

It is unfair that Lehman has to face the task of handling such a massive population with diminishing resources. I chose Lehman because I believed it would make me successful in the future with the things it offers. From my experience at Lehman I’ve see bright students with a promising future and the fantastic teachers that help shape them. Phasing out this school would prompt our best teachers to look for a job elsewhere and leave our honors students unable to enjoy the benefits of the great things that school provides, such as challenging AP classes and productive programs. Closing this school down would put an end to the cherished history Lehman has, as well as to the surrounding community. We need adequate funding to support out population and to provide a good learning environment.

We as students of not just Lehman but all other affected schools cannot sit back as the DOE kills off our schools. Our voices need to be heard, because in the end the decisions that are made up in DOE headquarters affect every single student in this city. And it is unjust that we have no say in decisions. I’m proud to attend Lehman and go every day to school just to get a decent education. But what will “Lehman High School” look like on my transcript if the DOE is sending my school to the grave?

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