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Flushing High School hearing gets heated

At a contentious public hearing on the closure of Flushing High School, a rowdy crowd, including English teacher Chris Marzian (l.), shouted and cheered during hours of testimony from educators, parents and students. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

Many teachers, residents and parents were convinced that the public hearing on the city Department of Education’s plan to close Flushing High School last week was simply a formality.

“Nothing we say tonight will change your minds,” said music teacher Michael Albertson, speaking in front of hundreds gathered in the auditorium, located at 35-01 Union St.

And while the proposal was set to be voted on this week by the city Panel for Educational Policy, the DOE had scheduled a meeting with the proposed principal of the new school, Magdalen Radovich, a day beforehand.

Educators and teachers constantly cited the school’s improving graduation rate — up to 60 percent last year compared to 54 percent in the 2007-08 school year — and the nascent programs and partnerships with outside organizations started under the transformation model last spring as reasons why Flushing was not getting a fair shot at improving, since many of the programs take time to produce results.

But there were many opinions of why Flushing was not up to snuff. One teacher referred to the school as a “dumping ground” where students came after the phase-out of Jamaica HS began.

Albertson told the panel, “You would never send your own kids here, but you have the audacity to tell us what is best.”

A teacher named Laura Spadacini said it was the previous principal, Cornelia Gutwein, who dug Flushing into its current hole.

“Her principal philosophy was geared toward social and emotional well-being,” she said, without a focus on results. “You are now holding us responsible for the mistakes made over the last 12 years.”

There are 3,045 total students at the school, and other critics of the DOE’s plan cited the 20 percent of those students who must learn English, along with completing their regular coursework, as why the school is unfairly categorized as persistently low-achieving.

At the hearing, an English teacher named Chris Marzian, who wore a red shirt and novelty devil horns on his head, shouted at the panel, “Do you think you could write four essays in Chinese in four months?”

But the woman responsible for teaching some of those English language learners, Jenny Chen, disputed that claim.

“I believe most of the problems are not from immigrant students,” she said, citing the fact that many of the top 10 students each year are Chinese children who came from overseas. “These students are motivated.”

Chen said the problems arise from students who grew up in the borough and were brought up speaking English.

Flushing HS is made up of 56 percent Latino students, 22 percent black or African-American students, 18 percent Asian students and 4 percent white students.

Of Flushing’s student body, 75 percent are eligible for free or discounted school lunches due to their family’s low income.

Another argument against closure often touted by the United Federation of Teachers paints the decision as not for the student’s benefit, but as a political move in response to a dispute between the union and Mayor Michael Bloomberg over a system to evaluate teachers and ultimately remove the bad ones.

In the DOE’s proposal, the issue of teacher evaluations comes up frequently.

“The continuing lack of a new teacher evaluation system led the DOE to further examine other options that were available to improve teacher quality,” the DOE said in the report.

If the city closes Flushing HS, it can lay off at least 50 percent of the staff, which would have otherwise been impossible owing to the union’s contract with the city.

But the DOE’s proposal also cited declining overall performance of the school as the reason to backtrack on their original transformation model and institute the closure. On its city report card the school went from a “B” in 2008-09 to a “D” in 2010-11.

“The previous decision to implement the transformation model at the school was predicated on some positive trends in student graduation rates,” the DOE said in the report. “However, Flushing’s metrics declined during the 2010-2011 school year and based on this most recent data, the DOE believes that students at Flushing would be better served by implementation of a more intensive intervention.”

Many of the programs offered at Flushing HS will be preserved in the new school.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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