Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ignoring the Voices of a Community, a Mayor Seeks to Destroy an Iconic Public School

 The following is by Tony Kelso, a parent and a member of Community Education Council in District 6, Upper Manhattan.
                                 So this is the way education works under mayoral control.
            At what was billed as a public hearing to determine the fate of P.S. 132, an elementary school in New York City’s Washington Heights, speaker after speaker rose up and passionately voiced opposition to the Department of Education (DOE)’s plan to force the school to share its building with another school that would be created from scratch and opened in the fall. Not a single teacher, community leader, or parent who took the microphone was in favor of the proposal. But it won’t matter. Indeed, there was nobody even there to listen to and address the crowd’s concerns because the DOE had not bothered to send a representative to stand before the assembly and run the meeting. Instead, seated in the first row of the auditorium with their backs to the audience, two young women—one wearing a shiny silver skirt, as though she would be heading to a dance club after the meeting, the other slumped in the seat beside her, looking as if she would rather be sitting through a two-hour plane delay than endure the agony of paying attention to active citizens defending a cherished school—were the only people the DOE charged with attending the hearing. 
          The club kid, Meera Jain, an Associate Director of Planning for N. Manhattan schools from the DOE’s Division of Portfolio Planning, took notes on her laptop, while her bored-to-death assistant limply timed speakers to ensure they didn’t exceed their allotted two minutes each. The two employees actually never publicly identified themselves as members of the DOE until somebody asked who they were and what they were doing there. Despite the fact that many, if not most of the people gathered could not fluently communicate in English, neither employee was able to speak in nor understand Spanish, except through the assistance of two translators, which occasionally involved bringing the proceedings to a halt while Ms. Jain privately conferred with one of them before typing in English two-minute speeches delivered in Spanish. In the end, the message of the farcical proceedings was clear—come March 20, Mayor Bloomberg’s hand-picked stooges on the Board of Education will apply their rubber stamp by voting to approve the co-location plan as written.
A Pillar of the Community
            Rooted in a neighborhood whose population consists mostly of Dominicans by birth or ancestry, P.S. 132 is better known as Juan Pablo Duarte , appropriately named after the commonly recognized Founding Father of the Dominican Republic. The school, housed in a nearly 110-year-old building, is the oldest one in Northern Manhattan and a second home for many residents, having served the Dominican community for generations. No school in its district has more of what are termed “English Language Learners” (ELLs) than Duarte—over half of the students who first enter the school speak Spanish as their primary language. No doubt, educating such a concentration of ELLs poses a challenge to teachers and administrators alike. Yet through the years Duarte has continuously prepared children for promotion to middle school. Recently the front office secured grants that enabled the school to install two state-of-the-art computer labs. The leadership has also worked to maintain a partnership with Music and the Brain , a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing music instruction and instruments to students—in a public education system that makes it increasingly difficult to keep enrichment programs alive, Duarte boasts not one but two rooms equipped with keyboards which could be lost because of the co-location . Moreover, even as recently as 2010, P.S. 132 earned a “B” on the DOE’s annual “report card.”
Class sizes in K-3 at Duarte
            But in the past few years, the city has starved the school of resources, draining over $1.5 million from its operating budget. Class sizes have soared, with the majority of the classrooms containing over 30 students. Not surprisingly, then, student performance has suffered. Two academic years ago, the DOE dropped Duarte to a “D” on its report card, a mark that was replicated the following year. Regarding two successive years of bad grades as unacceptable (even though the school had missed a “C” the previous year by just .02 points), the DOE was ready to take action.

Sink in Duarte bathroom
            The school has faced other burdens as well. Despite its historical charm, Duarte’s building is in need of major refurbishment. For years, the school’s principal has pleaded for money to simply upgrade its bathrooms. It’s easy to see why—a trip to the rest rooms reveals rust-stained sinks, stall doors that do not lock, and toilets that are so difficult to flush that many young children simply leave their deposits behind, inadvertently adding to the stench in what can only be described as a demoralizing environment. Yet at a recent capital plan hearing, in a candid moment, the DOE’s representative stated that regardless of how run down the facilities are no improvement would be forthcoming because, after all, “the toilets still work.” It went without saying that nothing would be done to enhance any other part of the building as well, including the cleaning of the ceiling and walls throughout the structure to remove their growing patches of mold, whose particles over 750 four- to eleven-year-old students breathe in five days a week.

Toilet in Duarte bathroom
Imposing its Will on the Community

            From the DOE’s perspective, according to its Environmental Impact Statement,
a co-location would benefit Duarte because it “will help address the school’s performance struggles as it will be able to focus on a smaller student population.” It appears, however, that shoving a new school, to be identified as 06M103, into a dilapidated facility with P.S. 132, is the DOE’s way of offering a concession. Only weeks earlier, the DOE had threatened the school with closure altogether. But after an outcry from the community  , the DOE backed down and removed Duarte from its list of “failing” schools that needed to be tossed into its educational dustbin. Shortly afterward, though, after a behind-closed-door meeting, it issued Plan B. With the co-location, “06M103 will open during the 2013-2014 school year, when it will serve approximately 70-80 students in kindergarten. 06M103 will gradually phase in by adding one grade per year. The school is expected to reach full scale in 2018-2019 and will serve approximately 420-480 students,” after “P.S. 132 has completed its enrollment reduction of over 425 children. In other words, Juan Pablo Duarte is now being offered death drip by drip rather than a sudden demise.
            There is no evidence to suggest that housing another school—especially one with no track record—in Duarte’s facility will boost student performance. 06M103 is expected to nearly duplicate P.S. 132’s programming and accommodate the very same children it siphons off. The model of breaking up a large school into smaller ones has already been attempted in Duarte’s district, resulting in no appreciable increase in standardized test scores for either the host or infiltrating schools. In fact, it is far likelier that co-location will only further tighten the leash around a school already gasping for air. Co-locations generally lead to a loss of space for the original school, which means that not only will classes probably remain overcrowded, but rooms used for enrichment programs, such as art studios and science labs, will also evaporate.
            Duarte’s current scant resources are bound to further diminish. Instead of fostering a harmonious environment, co-locations typically give rise to one school pitted against another one, with parents fighting other parents for adequate space and equipment such as auditorium sound systems and even libraries. Storage rooms become classrooms. Echoing hallways become the sites for speech therapy and tutoring. Ultimately, P.S. 132 might be forced to also bid adieu to its high-end computer labs and keyboards.
            What is truly appalling about the DOE’s rush to destroy public schools in mostly low-income areas is its utter disregard for the educators, parents, and students whose lives will be thrown into turmoil by its mean-spirited bullying. In the case of Juan Pablo Duarte, the plan for either closure or co-location was never discussed with the local Community Education Council, the only elected body—consisting of volunteers with children in neighborhood schools—assigned the responsibility of representing the parents in the school’s district. Nor did the DOE ever consult with the community at large. In a heartless gesture designed to pay lip service to the idea that it has in truth invited response from the public, the department had earlier distributed information about the proposal to the predominantly Spanish-speaking parents of the school. Yet every document was printed only in English.
            Maybe, in the end, the real plan of the Bloomberg administration is not to actually help children learn but to expand the coffers of the high-rollers the mayor associates with. Given the DOE’s co-location proposal, there will inevitably be one more—make that two more—public schools bled of their capacity to nurture and properly educate their students. That’s two more opportunities to send in the corporate managers to “fix” the problem. And another step along the path to school privatization, as Bill Gates and his cohort of investors and hedge fund supervisors eagerly continue to push “reform” in their quest to fully exploit the education “market.” Meanwhile the underserved Dominican-Americans near P.S. 132 will most likely watch their supposed benefactors rub out a name that evokes ethnic pride throughout Washington Heights. Juan Pablo Duarte will be no more.


Noah said...

Thanks for shining a light on this Tony. Only curiosity is why the DOE is using a co-located district school to destroy PS 132 rather than the ubiquitous Success charter co-location? Could it be that Success wouldn't deign to co-locate in a building in this state of disrepair? Or might it have something to do with the high neighborhood concentration of ELL's making the usual cream skimming of top students and parents too difficult even for Eva Moskowitz? Or both? Success Charter has 6 schools co-located in District 3 alone (and a pending application for another) but not a single one in all of District 6. Not that I would EVER wish Success Charter in my friends in Northern Manhattan, but worth asking.

Tony said...

Noah, I think you're right on both counts. These two pictures present just a tiny sample of what terrible shape the school is in--no Charter school is going to want to occupy the building. And you make a good point about the ELLs as well--it would be hard to hand pick its student population.

Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for documenting this outrage, unfortunately par for the course in Bloomberg's New York. Anne and I and the kids will be there in the 20th, protesting the DOE's granting of space in Gabriel's school to a charter startup while denying his school's application to expand into a middle school. Let's hope there's a return to democracy in NYC's future.

Janine said...

This is a travesty, and the legacy that the "Education Mayor" will be remembered for during his reign. I am only soothed when the words of my 9 year old daughter come back to me in situations like this. When I asked her what she had learned in her kindergarten class many years ago, she said, "Mom, we learned that everything you do comes back to you." May this gem of wisdom hold true here and thank you for shedding light on such a dark experience.