Students and teachers of William Cullen Bryant High School came out in force to show they give a “hoot” about their school.
Bryant – whose mascot is an owl – is in danger of being “turned around” by the Department of Education (DOE), resulting in the closing of the school at the end of the academic year and reopening under a different name in the fall of 2012. The Turnaround model also involves the replacement of up to 50 percent of the school’s more than 200 educators, but all current students and incoming ninth graders who have applied and been matched to Bryant will have a seat in the new school.
Over 100 elected officials, faculty, students and parents attended a rally prior to a DOE public hearing at the school, located at 48-10 31st Avenue in Long Island City, on April 4 – voicing their displeasure with the city’s plan by chanting “Save our school. Keep Bryant open.”
“[Bryant] shouldn’t be saved because of its history. It should be saved because of what’s happening here today,” said Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, an alumnus of Bryant. “You have over 3,000 kids, many of whom are the children of immigrants – 20 percent of students are English language learners and 34 percent of students are eligible for free lunches. Firing over half the teachers and opening up a new school, there’s no way that doesn’t disrupt the lives of these kids and cause a rupture that would be really difficult to heal.”
A number of teachers and students also spoke at the rally, including Bryant Student Body President Sotiria Zouroudis.
“We are like a family here, and if they fire the teachers then this family is broken. We don’t want to see that happen,” she said.
Teachers at Bryant expressed concern that the DOE is working against the school, rather than with it.
“I think this is terrible and it is demoralizing students and teachers,” said Georgia Lignou, a history teacher at Bryant. “The DOE has been undermining this school for years. They keep claiming the Turnaround is not going to be disruptive to the students, but I think it is going to be very disruptive – already it is disruptive because the students feel they’re in a school that is not good.”
Despite the outrage most have shown towards the Turnaround model, some parents believe adjustments are necessary.
“The kids can only be affected in a good way – [the Turnaround] is not affecting them in any other way,” said the parent of a Bryant freshman who preferred to remain anonymous. “The school will be here in September, the kids will come in, they will have an opportunity for 50 percent new teachers, a new way of teaching, more funding and different programs. This is a school that needs change.”
DOE Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez said the department “stands behind” current Bryant principal Namita Dwarka’s leadership and believes she is the “right person to be the proposed new leader of the proposed new school.”
Rodriguez also said the DOE is aiming to improve the educational quality at Bryant – which had a four-year graduation rate of 57 percent last year, below the citywide rate of 65 percent. Bryant also received an overall grade of “C” on its 2010-11 annual progress report, with an “F” on student performance, “D” on student progress and “B” on school environment. According to Rodriguez, Bryant was showing improvement on certain Regents Exams, and the school ranked in the top third in the city in graduating students with disabilities within four years.
“By closing W.C. Bryant and replacing it with a new school, we are seeking to rapidly create a school environment that will prepare for success in college, work and life,” Rodriguez said. “The new school will build on the strongest elements of W.C. Bryant, and it will also incorporate new elements in order to create a rigorous culture for teaching and learning.”
Bryant is on the state’s list of Persistently Lowest Achieving (PLA) schools, and was receiving a significant amount of Race to the Top funding before negotiations broke down between the city and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) on an evaluation system. By instituting the Turnaround model – a program which does not require teacher evaluations – the city will be eligible to apply for up to $60 million in School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding from the state. Bryant would be eligible for $1.8 million in supplemental federal funding.
Dermot Smyth, the Queens political action coordinator for the UFT, believes Mayor Michael Bloomberg should return to negotiations with the union and cease “this nonsense with these schools.”
“With all the publicity surrounding these schools, how many parents are going to want to send their kids here next year,” he said. “This has a domino effect of affecting every neighborhood in this borough in a negative way. The mayor has created a dark cloud over these schools – one of suspicion – which is unwarranted and untrue.”
Initially, 33 schools across the borough were designated for Turnaround, but the DOE recently removed seven schools from the list after discovering they had report card grades of “A” or “B.” Smyth says the city’s actions prove their plan has “no educational justification whatsoever.”
The DOE’s proposal will be voted on by the Panel for Education Policy (PEP), a committee composed of 13 members assigned by the five borough presidents and Mayor Bloomberg, on April 26.