school closing season

At Bronx closure hearing, an apology and pleas for more space

Students from Bronx Academy of Letters line up to speak at a public hearing last week about changes that are proposed to their school’s building. (Photo: Elana Eisen-Markowitz)

At a public hearing where accusations flew about who is responsible for a South Bronx school’s challenges, only one person stood up to take blame.

“I apologize publicly for not doing what was expected by the community of me,” said William Hewlett, the founding principal of M.S. 203, at a hearing last week about the school’s proposed closure.

The Department of Education announced in January that it would seek to shutter M.S. 203, open since 2001, because of low performance. The middle school’s test scores put it among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, and it earned a C grade or lower on its last three city progress reports, which focus on student growth.

As M.S. 203 phases out, the department announced, a charter elementary school, Bronx Success Academy 1, that had shared its building for a year would be able to expand to serve middle school grades. Two other schools in the building — the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters and P168, which serves students with severe disabilities — would stay on, but with new neighbors.

The proposed changes, which the Panel for Educational Policy is set to approve next month, would be only the latest shakeup in District 7, an area with many high-need students where schools have long struggled.

District 7 parents and teachers said they worry that if the city closes “failing” public schools and allow charter schools to expand, local students won’t have good educational options in their neighborhoods if they don’t win spots in charter school enrollment lotteries.

Amber Bennett teaches middle-school science at Bronx Letters and lives in District 7’s Mott Haven neighborhood. With only a few non-screened middle schools left in the area, phasing out M.S. 203 would mean “further isolating and disadvantaging our most vulnerable families,” she said.

“Look at the whole district,” said Neyda Franco, president of the District 7 community education council. “Where are our kids going to go?”

Franco said she isn’t against charter schools; in addition to having one child at Bronx Letters, she has children and grandchildren who attend various charter schools in New York City. But she said she doesn’t think charter schools should be allowed to expand at the cost of traditional public schools.

And despite Hewlett’s statement, members of his staff said M.S. 203 was hampered most by not getting enough support to meet the needs of a very challenging student population.

“There has been a complete and total lack of support from the district and our network,” said Dean Gross, speaking on behalf of the M.S. 203 school leadership team.

Looking directly at Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of school closures, Gross asked, “Are you shutting us down because it’s easier?”

The department “believes that only the most serious intervention — the gradual phase-out and eventual closure of M.S. 203 — will address the school’s performance struggles and allow for new school options to develop,” according to the city’s official statement about the impact of the proposed changes.

Sternberg said at the hearing that the department hasn’t yet made a decision about M.S. 203’s closure or the expansion of Success Academy.

“[The hearing] is not a decision point,” said Sternberg. “I am here to gather feedback and intelligence over whether this is the right choice.”

Although the hearing was supposed to focus on the closure and co-location proposals, much of the feedback came from supporters of Bronx Academy of Letters. The city says changes in the building would not affect the small secondary school, but teachers and students argued otherwise. (A teacher at the school, Elana Eisen-Markowitz, previewed the testimony last week in the GothamSchools Community section.)

This year, the school gave up some middle school classrooms to Success Academy. The replacement rooms are smaller and on the other side of the building and have left students feeling squeezed.

“The [middle school] rooms are tiny,” said Zarquin Taylor, who goes by Quin. “It’s not good for the health. I worry about that.”

Taylor, a high school junior, has a younger sister in second grade at Success Academy. Samia is getting an excellent education and having her in the same building is convenient, Taylor said, but she said the schools should get an equal crack at space.

Because of the changes to Bronx Letters’s layout, high school students and middle school students do not interact as much, said junior Ashley Cruz. “The school spirit is broken,” she said.

Often, the Success Academy charter school network has supporters turn out in droves for public hearings about their schools’ bids for space. But no one from Success Academy spoke at the hearing, and representatives of the Bronx Success Academy 1 declined multiple requests for comment.

The Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board, is set to vote on the changes to the South Bronx building and dozens of other schools next month. A majority of panel members serve at the will of Mayor Bloomberg, and the panel has never rejected a city proposal.

“The decision to close M.S. 203 has already been made,” said Rich Farkas, vice president of the United Federation of Teachers, who represented the union’s central leadership at the hearing. “[Success Academy] is going to expand at the cost of M.S. 203.”

Kyesha Christopher, a junior at Bronx Academy of Letters, offered the same sentiment. “I have a feeling that nothing we do is going to change it,” she said.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.