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)
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.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
SUNY Official Resigns Over Charter Issue
Professor Says School Policy Is Unclear
A prominent academic has resigned from the State University of New York Board of Trustees amid what he called the increasing political tension over the shifting role of charter schools across the state.
New York University professor Pedro Noguera, who held a powerful position on the 17-member board that approves charter schools, said Wednesday he believed the schools had evolved beyond their original mission: offering an alternative to failing public schools in impoverished neighborhoods.
Instead, he said, many have become unnecessary rivals to established suburban and improving urban schools.
Mr. Noguera said he met with SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and Board of Trustees ChairmanH. Carl McCall in December to express his concerns but didn't receive a clear answer. He had been appointed to the board by former Gov. David Paterson in 2008 and was chairman of the committee that made recommendations to the larger board over whether to approve individual charter schools.
"It's not clear to me what's the larger strategy here, other than the political one," he said. "What I see happening is a deliberate attempt to create competition between public and charter schools, but it's an uneven playing field."
In a statement, Mr. McCall praised Mr. Noguera but declined to address his specific complaints. Ms. Zimpher didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Noguera, known for his work on the education of young black men, was viewed as a moderate on most education issues, tending to disappoint more fervent advocates on both sides.
Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association, said he disagreed with Mr. Noguera's views and said SUNY was nationally recognized for approving good charter schools. "What I would hope is that a lot of people would just appreciate that he's intellectually honest," Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Noguera said he came to believe SUNY didn't have a clear philosophy behind deciding which charters to approve and that even well-performing charters, when placed in inappropriate neighborhoods, drew resources away from other public schools.
His resignation came against the backdrop of larger questions over the role of charter schools in public education. Once seen as experimental alternatives to crumbling inner-city schools controlled by teachers unions and bureaucracy, charter schools have begun to flourish in wealthy suburbs and upscale urban neighborhoods.
Amid an recent uproar over proposed charter schools in New Jersey suburbs, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said he believed their schools' focus should be on "districts that are judged to be failing."
Charter operators seeking space in middle-class neighborhoods are "rubbing raw these tensions between folks who could support charters as decentralized community-based institutions but now are fearful that the charter movement is being taken over by larger management organizations without deep roots in the community," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College Columbia University.
The SUNY board oversees 83 operating charter schools out of 184 in the state. The state Board of Regents, which operates 30, is the only other body allowed to approve charter schools. The city had that power until 2010.
Mr. Noguera resigned after a particularly heated community meeting over a proposed charter school in Brooklyn's gentrified Cobble Hill neighborhood. The school, part of former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy Charter network, is set to move into a building that houses three other schools. The plan has drawn criticism from some parents, teachers and elected officials.
"It's just the latest reminder of how needlessly polarized and conflictual this whole thing has become," he said. "This is just going to continue, and I see no end to it." Mr. Noguera said Success Cobble Hill would be strong academically and financially, but he was disturbed by the level of opposition in the community.
In a statement, Ms. Moskowitz called Mr. Noguera a "great partner and advocate of high quality charter schools and we're sad to see him go."
"His departure, however, doesn't change the fact that there are families lined up in every neighborhood across this city for better public schools and we'll continue to work as hard as we can to meet that demand and give every child the well-rounded education they need and deserve," the statement read.
Write to Lisa Fleisher at firstname.lastname@example.org