Jamaica High School UFT
167-01 Gothic Drive
Jamaica, NY 11432
February 11, 2008
Ms. Randi Weingarten
President United Federation of Teachers
New York, NY 10004
Dear President Weingarten:
Jamaica High School is suffering close to one million dollars in budget cuts for the current spring semester. We have thirteen fewer teachers than we had in the fall. Our funding has been slashed because of declining enrollments caused mainly by the Department of Education and New York State wrongfully labeling us as an impact school and a persistently dangerous school because of misuse of data. We have been hit with a second punch due to the recent citywide budget cut. We can no longer function properly as a comprehensive high school and the DOE has reacted by forcing us to share our space with another school in the fall.
On Monday, January 28, 2008, the faculty and parents of Jamaica High School were surprised to hear that a College Board School would be placed inside of our building in September. We are only beginning to learn about the College Board’s vision for secondary education and we harbor no malice toward the program or its schools. However, to place a new separate school with its abundance of resources from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation on our premises while we are struggling with outlandish budget cuts from the New York City Department of Education is extremely unfair.
Jamaica High School was chartered in 1892. We have a 116 year history of which the staff and students are extremely proud. There are numerous distinguished alumni who have graduated from Jamaica High School. Gateway to Higher Learning, Academy of Finance, Law, Engineering and Computer Science Institute are educational programs that attract many fine students. We also do our best with many students who enter high school unprepared for the academic rigors of our challenging curriculum. In spite of this, it is quite common for even our students with the greatest needs to be successful at the high school level and fully prepared for higher education and beyond.
Most educators in this building feel as though we are links on a long chain that is Jamaica’s storied tradition. We believe we have been handed an almost sacred trust by the professionals and students who toiled here in the past to keep Jamaica moving ahead into the 21st century as a viable educational institution. However, our mission has become increasingly difficult mainly because of factors that are way beyond our control.
Commencing in 2003 there was a spike in reported disciplinary incidents in the school. At that time the administration started a zero-tolerance discipline policy that helped keep our hallways clear but it led to many more misdemeanor incidents being reported. Inevitably, suspensions and arrests increased. Subsequently, the Department of Education mis-labeled us a “priority school” and then an “impact school.” Inaccurate newspaper articles about the labels further tarnished our reputation. Our contesting the designations with the New York City Police Department and the Department of Education were to no avail. In the fall of 2007 the state misinterpreted our statistics to wrongfully label us a “persistently dangerous school,” a label that has had dire consequences for us.
In September the New York City Department of Education sent an official letter to the parent of every student in our school telling them Jamaica High School had been labeled “persistently dangerous” (though the school is not unsafe and never was) and offering to transfer their children out of our school. In the fall semester 173 parents took the opportunity to transfer their youngsters to other New York City schools. The Department of Education reacted, not by offering to help us to recruit students in order to preserve the integrity of Jamaica’s programs and ease overcrowding in neighboring schools, but by slashing our budget midyear, citing declining enrollments. As a result, we can no longer function properly as a comprehensive high school.
We now have eleven teachers who are in excess. Termed Absent Teacher Reserves (ATR’s) by the Department of Education, they are only permitted to cover for teachers who are out for the day, not teach a regular program.
On the first day of the spring semester, one of our teachers walked into an honors economics class of 39 students. Chairs from other classes had to be brought in to accommodate the students, and ultimately a number of students had to be dropped because there were too many students for one class. Meanwhile, a licensed social studies teacher (one of the ATR’s) is not teaching classes. Another social studies teacher is instructing music classes out-of-license, while the licensed music teacher (another ATR) has no classes to teach. The administration was compelled to close all but one of the swimming classes this term (though our pool is one of Jamaica High School’s great assets) because there is no money for the smaller classes swimming courses demand. We have been forced to slash innovative programs such as our two-teachers-in-a-class program for students having difficulty in math. The pupils are being short-changed in the classroom.
Other cuts we have suffered over the last few years include: the elimination of Summer Institute Pre-High School program for incoming Gateway students and the cancellation of the Advanced Placement government class as well as off-track classes for pupils who have failed a course and need to catch up. Also, classes outside the regular day are only available for graduating seniors. How can our students succeed when we cannot provide most students with what they need academically?
In addition, students are not offered the extracurricular choices that are often the hallmark of the high school experience. After school clubs are basically now volunteer activities since there is no money to pay for faculty advisors. The Odasete Dance Team, the Caribbean Club, the Spanish Honors Society, the Cheerleaders, the Bengali Club, and the Drama Club have all been dropped. The Step Team, the Animate Club, the Key Club, the Haitian Club, the International Club, the Teen Ambassadors, the Science Club and the Tennis Club are all supervised by teachers for free because there are insufficient funds to pay advisors for these programs. Teachers and other staff had to volunteer their time to set up and run our third annual Cardboard Boat Race where students apply what they have learned in physics class to build and race in boats in our swimming pool. Teachers volunteer for all of these activities because of their commitment to our students.
Furthermore, the budget for school secretaries has been cut; our secretarial staff has been reduced by attrition. The remaining secretaries are being overwhelmed with tasks that were once performed by a larger crew. Inevitably, services for students as well as staff deteriorate.
The Department of Education has reacted to our plight by bringing in hordes of armed police officers, school safety agents, surveillance cameras and metal detecting equipment for a school that does not have a weapons problem. To top it off we now learn that in September the DOE will be opening up a new College Board school at Jamaica High School with their own principal and staff.
The College Board School students will assuredly get every advantage that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation have to offer while Jamaica’s traditional pupils will suffer with even more cuts as our enrollments decline and we are squeezed out of various wings of the building. Working under ever-worsening conditions, we will be blamed when our students fail to do well.
The College Board website indicates that their schools are unscreened, but will their new school take on special education pupils or students with limited English proficiency, as we do, when it starts in the fall? As the resources are provided to the new school, those in need of greatest help will mostly likely remain in the regular Jamaica High School.
Deprived of the resources we need to survive, we feel we are being set up to fail by being slowly suffocated by the DOE. How could we not fail when we are a comprehensive high school that cannot afford to run a comprehensive program?
We know that the UFT has taken a position opposing the horrific midyear budget cuts that have been imposed by the Mayor and Chancellor. The Union has our unqualified support in this battle. Our situation certainly can be highlighted to show how placing a school within this school with its own principal will compromise educational opportunities in this building. The students here deserve greater assistance, not greater competition for what limited resources there are.
The UFT Chapter Committee Jamaica High School
James Eterno Social Studies Department UFT Chapter Leader
Debbie Saal Math Department School Leadership Team Member
Gustavo Medina Science Department School Leadership Team Member
Dena Gordon Social Studies Department UFT Delegate
Tiffany Young English Department
Judy Reuben Guidance Department
Kathy Reynolds School Secretaries
Irma Segovia Second Language Department
Rose Slaymaker Physical Education Department
Calvin Whitfield Special Education Department