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Southeast Queens schools lose fight to save their future

Jamaica High School students join Tony Avella (r.) in a rally outside the school. Photo by Ivan Pereira
TimesLedger Newspapers

It was a down year for parents, students and teachers at Jamaica High School and three other southeast Queens schools after the city finally moved ahead with its plan to shut down the institutions, but their supporters said they will continue to fight in 2012.

Since the start of the school year, students at Jamaica High have lost a lot of their spirit, since they know they will be the last students to graduate from the 120-year-old campus.

James Eterno, a social studies teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader for the school, said despite the city’s mandate that Jamaica stop admitting freshman in the fall, the faculty and student body will not let its legacy end on a whimper.

“We’re disappointed in the way it’s gone. But it’s not over till it’s over,” he said.

Emotions rang high in January when the city Department of Education held a meeting at the school to discuss its plans for the phase-out. The city said Jamaica High, Beach Channel High School, PS 30 in Jamaica and IS 231 in Springfield Gardens had low graduation rates as well as poor school report cards and needed to be replaced by smaller schools.

Hundreds of supporters packed the auditorium, including notable alumni such as City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), and blasted the city for what they called academic hypocrisy.

Jamaica High’s landmarked building, at 167-01 Gothic Drive, shares its space with three other high schools — Queens Collegiate High, the Hillside Arts & Letters Academy and the High School for Community Leadership — and the other institutions had better school supplies and equipment since they were established last year, according to teachers.

“This is the worst case of separate and unequal I’ve ever seen,” state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who became a staunch supporter for the school after he was elected to office, told the DOE members at the meeting.

The protest continued until February, when the city Panel for Educational Policy voted for the phase-out at Brooklyn Technical High School. Thousands of students from targeted schools across the city took to the school’s massive auditorium to criticize newly appointed city Schools Chancellor Cathie Black right to her face.

Unlike the year before, where protesters made their voices heard throughout the seven-hour meeting and vote, everyone staged a major walkout less than an hour into the event and did not wait for the panel to vote for the closures.

Eterno said he was proud of the show of support for Jamaica High because even though the big turnout did not have an impact on the school’s fate, it resonated among New Yorkers.

“It showed we could bring a lot of people from the school community out. It was not only students, it was parents, teachers and alumni who came out and said it was not right,” he said.

Parents and teachers at Beach Channel High, PS 30 and IS 231 joined in the fight to prevent the closures and also challenged the city’s plans but said they did not have adequate time or support to improve their academics.

“One year was not enough to see if it would make a difference,” said Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton), who tried to stop the shuttering of IS 231.

The UFT emphasized this point when it sued the city in the spring for failing to provide the targeted schools with the necessary resources to improve. The union successfully won a similar suit and saved Jamaica High from phase-out in 2010, but the courts sided with the city on appeal this year.

Several supporters were shocked with the court ruling, including Comrie, who said there was a blatant imbalance between Jamaica High and the other institutions that shared its space.

“The school wasn’t given credit and not given resources to do a turn-around. What you have now is a travesty,” he said.

Jamaica High’s problems kept getting worse in the fall, when Jamaica Gateway to the Sciences moved into the building. As a result, Jamaica High teachers have had to share space and use outdated equipment, according to Eterno.

“Our computers don’t work at all,” said Jamaica High senior Raymond Almonte.

The lack of SMART Boards and computers is just the tip of the struggles that students have faced so far, the teacher said, because the kids have also been given limited access to honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Elected officials have been pushing the city to stop neglecting the students, but they say their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

“I can’t understand why a kid can’t take an AP class in one of the other schools. Even if they are limited [in budget, they] have to be creative,” Comrie said.

Eterno said he and the rest of the school members would not take the mistreatment lightly and hinted that more demonstrations are on the way for the new year.

“There are a lot of people who are demoralized, but we are keeping our head up,” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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