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Walcott says city listens to parents

State Assemblyman David Weprin asks city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott a question about overcrowded high schools in District 26. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

At a town hall meeting in Oakland Gardens last week, city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott discussed topics such as parent involvement and overcrowding with a packed auditorium at MS 74.

Community Education Council 26 President Jeanette Segal reminded those who had come to meet the city’s top education official of Feb. 15, that the week of Feb. 13-17 had been designated Respect for All Week and asked that “we all fully engage this initiative tonight.”

“I know lately it’s been a back-and-forth confrontation,” Walcott said, acknowledging the recent public ire over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies.

In particular, the city Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy has drawn vociferous criticism from parents and teachers, who say the panel does not consider their input when choosing to close troubled schools.

“We do listen,” Walcott said.

Segal, however, disagreed and said that 10 years after Bloomberg disbanded local school boards, “parents still feel we’re not partners.”

“There are a number of ways we involve families and parents at the macro and the school level,” Walcott responded, citing the $80 million the city has spent on the parent coordinator program, the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, and the development of the Parent Academy, which will provide workshops to help parents get more involved in their children’s education.

But when Segal asked whether the CEC had a say in the academy’s request for proposal process, Walcott said that to the best of his knowledge, they did not.

State Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) praised Walcott for being “more visible in Albany than former chancellors” before registering his concerns about overcrowding in the district’s large high schools and the closing of schools such as Jamaica High School, the assemblyman’s alma mater.

Walcott, a Francis Lewis High School alumnus, defended the mayor’s policy of closing poor-performing schools and said doing so gives parents “more options to choose from.”

He said high schools like Cardozo, Bayside and Francis Lewis were victims of their own successes, and promised that new, popular schools will lessen the burden on those in northeast Queens.

The DOE plans to add about 2,000 seats between Middle College High School in Long Island City and Maspeth High School next year.

The area school Walcott failed to mention was Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, whose principal has come under harsh criticism lately for the school’s poor performance.

Dino Sferrazza, a social studies teacher at Cardozo, said Van Buren administers about 50 advanced placement tests a year, whereas the other high schools administer about 1,000 each — a sign he said proved things were not working at the school.

“We’re afraid that if one domino goes in District 26, the others will follow,” he said.

Walcott said Van Buren is “on my radar” and said the school needed to rehabilitate its external image to attract better students.

Many of the school’s students, he said, come from Districts 28 and 29 and not “from a broad cross-section of districts in Queens.”

Members of Van Buren’s PTA and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) have called on the DOE to remove the high school’s principal, but Walcott said he did not publicly discuss matters of personnel, whether they concerned teachers or principals.

At one point, when Walcott boasted that Bloomberg has been extremely supportive of teachers, the crowd vocally expressed its incredulity. The chancellor, a veteran of PEP meetings, was unshaken and said he expected to see the sort of decorum parents would want their children to display in the classroom, at which point civility was returned.

One parent said she was concerned with the DOE’s plan to integrate special education students into general education classrooms next year, believing that one academic subject teacher would not be able to accommodate the emotional and behavioral needs of those students.

Walcott said he thought there was a “misunderstanding” about the program, known as Phase 2, and said he would like to schedule a special meeting with the CEC to discuss special education reform.

“I don’t want to shut this discussion off,” he said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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