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Van Buren co-location battle hits boiling point

Martin Van Buren High School students hold up signs in protest of the city's plan to co-locate a school there. Photo by Phil Corso
TimesLedger Newspapers

A chaotic news conference confirmed just how opposed the community is to a plan that would co-locate a new high school at Queens Village’s Martin Van Buren HS.

Students, teachers and elected officials rallied at the Hillside Avenue school last Friday in a last-ditch effort to garner support in anticipation of a public hearing there this week. Kids marched around the building with unified chants and strongly worded signs protesting the city Education Department’s proposal with hopes their new principal could have more time to improve the school’s performance.

“What happened to the commitment of the DOE to turn this school around?” state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) asked over a loud backdrop of impassioned high school students, joined by state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) and City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens). All three elected officials have been rallying in Principal Sam Sochet’s corner since his initial hiring.

The school brought in Sochet a year ago with hopes of getting Van Buren back on track after it experienced a steady decline in its progress report grades. Avella stood with colleagues in state and city government as well as a packed crowd of Van Buren officials, demanding the Bloomberg administration put a halt to this last-minute push to co-locate schools throughout the city before its term ends in January.

“These decisions should be left for a new administration,” Avella said.

A DOE spokesman said the city has seen a roughly 40 percent drop in Van Buren applicants since 2010, which acted as a catalyst for the agency to consider co-locating a school into the same building. The plan — which would be the first to hit the district — would install a new early college and career technical education school known as P-Tech to help students prepare for the job market after high school.

“Across the city, we’ve transformed the landscape with our new school options — and we’ve been nationally recognized by President Obama for our visionary offerings,” DOE Spokesman Devon Puglia said. “We’re delivering an incredible new early college and career technical education school for this community, one of only a handful from around the city. This will be a special new option that will deliver great outcomes for children, and we’re confident it will be in very high demand.”

If the co-location is achieved, the city would place another school within Van Buren that would partner with Bayside’s Queensborough Community College to offer opportunities for an associate degree at no cost. It was a plan that not everyone has opposed — with several civic leaders from northeast Queens coming out in full support.

Leaders from nine borough civics fired off a letter to the DOE saying they unanimously supported the plan, suggesting it would actually help to restore Martin Van Buren’s reputation.

“Local area parents refuse to send their children to MVB with its long history of failure. The community has suffered long enough,” said Bobby Sher, president of the Bell Park Manor Terrace Civic, which sits adjacent to the high school. “I believe that P-Tech and MVB can co-exist and P-Tech will greatly enhance the school in restoring a learning culture and once again become the school of excellence it once was.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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