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Thursday, February 2, 2012

South Bronx: Samuel Gompers HS Students Fight to Save School in Face of Closure

Wilvin Lopez (l.) and Elliot Vazquez (r.) present a calendar to a group of student organizers that shows when the city will vote on a plan to close Samuel Gompers High School. (DNAinfo/Patrick Wall)

Samuel Gompers HS Students Fight to Save School in Face of Closure

MOTT HAVEN — A few hours after Mayor Michael Bloomberg listed his administration’s education achievements during his State of the City address at a Bronx high school earlier this month, a group of local students gathered a few miles away to discuss how they could save their school.

The five young men, who attend Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School on Southern Boulevard, batted around plans to disrupt, or even prevent, a required public hearing on February 2 to discuss possibly closing the struggling school, prior to a city panel vote the following week on the proposal.

Sitting in the offices of a youth organizing group, a senior warned a sophomore that they could be suspended for their plans.

Students from Gompers High School who are members of the youth organizing group, Sistas and Brothas United, march in 2011 to demand federal improvement funds for their school. (DNAinfo/Patrick Wall)

“I’m OK with that,” said the sophomore, Joseph Duarte, 15.  
He mainly wanted a chance to address city officials, he said, so he could tell them, “You didn’t ask us, the people in the school and the community, what we need.”
The five students form the core of a group that has met over the past two years to call for changes at the high school, which earned an "F" on its most recent city evaluation. Though the students later decided to drop their plans to interfere with the hearing, they are still scrambling to raise awareness of the city’s proposal to phase out the 75-year-old school and replace it with two smaller ones.
Though Gompers' fortunes have fluctuated over the decades, the school has clearly declined in recent years. 
In 2011, the school’s four-year graduation rate of 41 percent ranked among the lowest 1 percent of city schools, according the Department of Education. Its attendance rate, at 72 percent, ranked among the bottom 2 percent of schools, and student demand for the school is down 46 percent over the past four years.
Several students, well aware of the school’s troubles, began to gather in 2010 to exchange grievances about the school — but also to brainstorm ideas for helping fix it. Many of the students were members of Sistas and Brothas United, a Bronx-based leadership training and organizing group for young people.
Though typical meetings included anywhere from 10 to 20 students, a meeting in a church in 2011 attracted nearly 50 Gompers students, according to one group member. At the meeting, dozens of students wrote on sticky notes their suggestions for the school, which varied from improving security and buying more technology, to serving “Spanish food” and enrolling more girls.  (The student body is 80 percent male and 66 percent Hispanic.)
Many suggestions focused on the school administration. When an organizer asked students at the meeting to step forward if they had seen the principal, Joyce Mills Kittrell, at least three times that year, only four students moved, according to Elliot Vazquez, a Gompers senior and a lead organizer.
“The principal needs to work on being more of a public figure,” said Vazquez, 17. “We want to see her face. We want to know that she’s watching the hallways.”
Other students noted that Kittrell and various administrators have met with student organizers more than once, and that administrators regularly hear from students on the School Leadership Team.
In a 2011 report, a Department of Education reviewer said Gompers administrators had recently taken some corrective actions, including installing security cameras, analyzing school-wide achievement data and increasing family involvement by hosting student award nights.
Kittrell did not return calls seeking comment.
The student organizers have also called for more counselors, more interactive and engaging lessons, more athletic teams, student input in some school budgeting decisions and updated learning materials.
One student even said back in 2011 that the most recent president featured in his history textbook was Ronald Reagan.
Some students suggested that the school should receive extra support because of the demanding student population it serves: 17 percent of students are English language learners, about a quarter are in special education classes and, in 2010, 92 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of family poverty, according to the Department of Education.

“They blame the school and students for us failing, when we don’t have the resources,” said Wilvin Lopez, a senior.
The Department of Education is proposing to phase out Gompers over the next three years, then establish in its place a smaller charter high school and a transfer high school for so-called overage, under-credited students.
Gompers offers some career-oriented courses in desktop publishing and computer networking and repair, allowing students to earn special diplomas that include industry-recognized certifications.  Many students expressed concern that they will lose these vocational classes if Gompers is closed.
In a document that it is required to file in advance of any school closure, the DOE acknowledged “it is possible that the availability of certain programs and course offerings will change” during the phase out. 
But the city added that it has proposed to open four new Bronx schools that would offer vocational classes, leading to “a net gain of 67 new ninth-grade seats” in career classes, if the department’s proposals are adopted.
The 13 voting members of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, eight of whom are appointed by the mayor, will vote on various school proposals — including the plan to close Gompers — on Feb. 9.
In the meantime, Gompers' student organizers intend to explain to anyone who will listen why their school should remain open. 
Vazquez said that as his graduation day approaches this year, one reason to save his school has taken on new urgency.
“I want to be an alumni here,” he said.

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